M. Rickert's first story, "The Girl Who Ate Butterflies," appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1999, and she had one story in F&SF each year after, until suddenly in 2003 she appeared in that magazine with five stories, two of which went on to be reprinted in various "best of the year" collections. Her stories have also appeared in The Ontario Review, Ideomancer, and the third Ratbastards chapbook, Rabid Transit: Petting Zoo.
Rickert's sudden prominence within the world of science fiction and fantasy has led many readers to wonder who she is. Most people know from the biographical notes to her stories that the M. stands for Mary, but her name is the least of her mysteries. I had been impressed by the stories of hers that I'd read, and so, through a mutual friend, arranged to interview her by e-mail. I sent a few questions at a time, then followed up with more, and then still more, both of us editing and refining along the way until we were satisfied with what we had created.
Matthew Cheney: How long have you been writing? Your stories are so skillful that I suspect you were practicing for a while before you first appeared in print. Is this so?
M. Rickert: When I was in second grade I overheard Sister Maria telling a visiting adult about my drawings. She said, "Her stories aren't much but her pictures are out of this world." Then Gregory Koke and I had an argument about what the phrase "out of this world" meant. Afterwards, I remember very consciously deciding to notice what made a good story and I really think I've been working on it ever since.
I recently finished a novel manuscript. This is my third attempt at a novel. I worked on that first manuscript for years and years. It morphed over time and eventually became what I called my "breeder novel," in that it generated several short stories and this most recent novel. But the novel itself, that first one, I never could get right. I never could honestly feel that it was finished. The second one was a more satisfying experience. More novella than novel, I felt that I had learned how to narrate a longer story and still maintain its cohesiveness. I sent it out a bit but I didn't get any nibbles and after a while I realized that I wasn't sure how enthused I felt about the work, myself. I set it aside.
After finishing this recent novel, I took out that earlier manuscript and I had a sort of epiphany. I'm not one of those writers who doesn't like her own work. I usually like everything I write. I know this about myself, and I've guarded against it the best I can. So, reading that previous manuscript, I still liked it. I think it's a nice story. I think it holds together well. But you know what? I could see why nobody was interested in it and why even I lost enthusiasm for it. All this time I'd been thinking that the boxes and boxes full of writing in my attic were my undiscovered masterpieces! I thought there might be something good there. And there is—if I place value, as I must, on my stubbornness and tenacity.
But all those rejections had been right. Now I can read that old stuff and see that there was something there, a reason for me to try this writing thing, but I had to do the work. I'm forty-four years old; I've been working at it for a long time.
MC: What brought you to publish in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction? Did you come to the science fiction/fantasy markets because that's something you tend to read?
MR: I was writing these weird little stories for years. The response I got for them was generally something like, "This is good but I don't know who would publish such a thing." My experience, from submitting to small journals, was that no one did. Then I moved from Sequoia National Park, where I had been living, to a small city in upstate New York where I only knew one other person. I spent a lot of time at the local library wandering through the stacks of books. Eventually, I came across the volumes of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. It was through these volumes that I discovered there was a whole community of writers and readers interested in the kind of stories I was interested in. I noticed that many of the stories which seemed the most like the sort of things I was writing had originally been published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. So I submitted "The Girl Who Ate Butterflies," which had been getting rejected for years and it got accepted. A couple of years later, I think, and after having other stories accepted by Fantasy and Science Fiction, I submitted a little piece called "Night Blossoms." Gordon Van Gelder said it wasn't right for them but I might want to try sending it to the Ontario Review. I sent it to a different publication first, where it got rejected, and then thought I'd try Gordon's suggestion. They accepted it.
For me, one of the hardest parts about being a writer is understanding who will publish what. I'm terrible at it. I think I'm developing a better idea of which stories, when I finish them, might be suited for F&SF and which aren't, but beyond that it's all still very mysterious to me.
MC: It must have felt like you'd reached a certain level of accomplishment when stories of yours were selected not only for The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror but also for two other "year's best" collections. Have the challenges of writing changed for you?
MR: I don't think so. The challenge remains to tell the tale.
MC: Do you worry about not being taken seriously as a writer because you are publishing with SF markets?
MR: I let go of any ideas of being taken seriously in general when I decided to try to become a writer. Being the oldest employee working at the local coffee shop also took care of any illusions I had about being taken seriously. At first it was hard. I had been working as a kindergarten teacher for a small private school for gifted children for about ten years. I never even got a college degree and through a series of events I had this wonderful career. With it came a certain amount of respect. People, in general, respect teachers. When I decided to commit myself to writing, I quit my job and began a sort of Bohemian existence but I wasn't a teenager or in my early twenties, when a lot of people are Bohemian, I was already in my thirties. I definitely noticed the difference in the way people treated me. And, you know, there I was sending off these stories that kept getting rejected and I did have my doubts. I did care about being taken seriously. But over time it just stopped mattering to me. Over time it just got funny. My perception changed and when that happened it didn't matter what anyone else's perception was.
I don't care about being taken seriously. Who has the energy for that sort of illusion? I just want to write the stories I need to write and I want them to be published in the places where the readers who need to read them will find them.
MC: I sense you have a certain perspective on the usefulness (if that's the word) of stories in people's lives. What is the significance of fiction for you as a form?
MR: I wonder if fiction is society's dream. We need to dream, as individuals, and I think we need to dream as a society. Is it true that the person who doesn't dream will go mad? If so, that suits my premise perfectly because I think society would go mad without fiction. (I know there are some societies that don't approve of fiction but I think they believe in the stories of their religion in much the same way.) The dreams of a society must include the pleasant, sweet, and also the weird, unpleasant, dark, and horrible. I don't go to fiction for escape. I think that much of what we call reality is actually escape. I go to fiction for the deeper truths.
MC: Are there authors you'd say have been an influence on your own work?
MR: During that time when I was wandering the library stacks I enjoyed the Beat writers and also the Harlem Renaissance writers. The emotion seemed to be there and also, in both cases, a really beautiful use of language. Been Down so Long It Looks Like Up to Me by Richard Farina really opened up some kind of cog in my head. I haven't read it since and I'm not sure the story would hold up for me, but his use of language helped me to realize something about the way I could use language. That was in my twenties.
Stephen King was important to me too. He was writing this weird stuff when everyone I knew, or read, was saying fiction should be written in this certain way, citing certain authors who I found boring. I really think Stephen King helped me to find my voice. I loved Lolita and Pale Fire by Nabokov, and Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, for both authors' ability to enter the disturbed mind and to do it with a kind of grace.
Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood and Terri Windling's The Wood Wife also both seemed to open up something inside of me. Moby Dick is one of my all-time favorite books and so is Life of Pi by Yann Martel, which I just finished. Stewart O'Nan's A Prayer for the Dying is also a great book.
Oh, I almost forgot Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And the poets! Charles Bukowski for the rawness of his language and experience. Rainer Marie Rilke, because at least in the translation I have, his phrasing has this way of twisting in a way that is very pleasing to the deconstructionist in me. Sylvia Plath, because once you set everything else aside, the drama of her life, that poor movie, there's still the bright fact of her brilliance. William Butler Yeats. "A terrible beauty is born." I could weep for lines like that.
I would also like to mention John Gardner. He was a tremendous influence and teacher for me. (Though I never met him.) My apologies to those I've neglected to mention. There are so many. (Oh, and Joyce Carol Oates, and Charles Dickens, and Memory and Dream by Charles de Lint.) All these people, who dared to be writers, and by doing so have taught me so much, are my pantheon.
MC: What of John Gardner's work influenced you—the fiction, the nonfiction...?
MR: I was referring to his The Art of Fiction. There are amazing exercises in that book and one of them, in particular, has had a major influence on my writing. The exercise goes something like this. You are a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Describe a barn. Don't mention the son, don't mention the war, don't mention death, and don't mention the man who is doing the seeing. That exercise has basically become my writing mantra.
MC: You have said that mythology has been an influence on your stories. How so?
MR: This question goes back to that "breeder novel." It was called The Shape of Her Weeping after Goethe's "We are fashioned and shaped by the things we choose to love." At some point, during the decade of rewriting it, I decided that the problem was that I didn't know what the narrator (an adult, telling a coming-of-age story) did for a living. Because of various elements in the story I decided that she'd grown up to be a writer who worked with retellings of myths. I also decided to include a few of her stories in the novel. That's how I came to write "The Machine," "Leda," and "The Chambered Fruit."
I wrote one other story, I think, that I can directly tie to mythology. It's called "Art is Not a Violent Subject" and it's in the latest Ratbastards chapbook, Petting Zoo. After writing this story, I was telling a friend about it and he said, "Oh, that's Pygmalion." He was right. I thought I was being original!
MC: How did you come to be associated with the Ratbastards?
MR: A couple years ago I got an e-mail from Charles Coleman Finley inviting me to attend Blue Heaven, a novel-writing workshop he was organizing. That's where I met Christopher Barzak, and he is one of the original Ratbastards.
MC: Once you begin work on a story, do you find yourself paying more attention to any one element than another, or is it all just a big juggling act?
MR: Sometimes I'll start with a title, or sometimes an image, sometimes it's about a voice, not something I hear but a physical resonance, the sort of sensation one feels in the presence of another person. But always, there has to be a feeling. If I had to describe my writing one way, I'd say I'm an Emotionalist. Emotion is the single most important element for me as a writer and as a reader. If I find a work to be emotionally untrue, I abandon it. I think a lot about emotions and what's happening to them in our culture, how certain emotions, such as ecstasy and gaiety, are being lost, as the words are being used to describe other experiences. I wonder if this has happened with other emotions. Agape, I guess, would be an example. Anyway, emotion is the element that sets the standard I write to.
MC: If emotions are being lost because words are changing their meanings, what do you think, then, is the relationship between language and experience?
MR: Wow! This is a big question. Sort of like a Zen koan. Well, the short answer, and the most honest one, is that I don't know. But for the sake of inquiry I'll describe my experience with one aspect of this subject.
Several years ago I was spending a lot of time considering the use of language, not as a unifying factor but as a divisive one. I came to a point where I really felt the hopelessness of language, the way each word separates us from ourselves and our experiences, how the mind is so busy describing and classifying that, instead of enhancing experience, it numbs us to it. I felt this as a tremendous loss. It was like falling into a great hole with no ladders or rope, no sign of rain to flood me out. And I had to ask myself what I was going to do about it. I mean, I was trying to be a writer. A word-monger! (My internal life is quite dramatic.)
What I decided was that the fact that I saw the brutality of language didn't mean that I had to love it any less, I just had to love it the way it is. We are creatures of language, after all, and there is no getting around that fact or the fact of my being a writer. (Whether I was published or not.) So I went right from this deep despair over language into this deeper affection for it, this profound affection.
A monk described it as "God manifested as syllables on your tongue." I love the idea of language creating our highest imagined form. Currently I'm working through these two different ideas of the relationship between language and experience. Language as the destroyer, and as the creator. I guess I'm tending, these days, to think it is both and in this way is a sort of supreme creature. The divine paradox. Which also, I think, describes what it is to be human.
MC: Do you see writing fiction as a way to make the mind less numb to experience? How so?
MR: Not necessarily. The unenlightened mind depends on a certain state of numbing to survive. How big can any one person allow the world to be? Most of us deal within the realm of family and acquaintances. Even then we develop a hierarchy of the numb. Okay, this person is somebody really close to me and she has cancer so I cry, my friend's mom has cancer so I feel bad, and all those other people with cancer, I don't even know them, so my response is more intellectual, on the level of, "we have to do something about cancer." This is true of wars, violence, the sorrows and the joys of human existence. To not be numb to most of it would shatter the normal psyche. I don't see writing fiction as making me any less numb to experience, but rather, as an expression of that numbing.
MC: Do you think there's value in expressing the numbing, or is it just an unavoidable side effect of writing?
MR: I think there's value in accepting the truth of human existence. We are beautiful monsters.