“Mannequin and Wife is a literal map of my obsessions. Old things, the ties that bind us, genre-blending, classic Hollywood, femme fatales, Shakespeare, cannibalism, loneliness, coping strategies, nostalgia, the unknowable-ness of other people (not to mention ourselves), the deep ironies of human existence, and our all-powerful, all-consuming need for control.”
Mannequin and Wife: Stories (LSU Press, 2020)
Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?
I was raised by a struggling single mother who dreamed of being a writer. She was a voracious reader, and she allowed me to pick books from her shelves, which is how I ended up reading books like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and A Spy in the House of Love before I was ten. My mom implanted an abiding love of literature in me, as well as the notion of “being a writer,” but I lack much in the way of self-esteem or -confidence, and as a very young woman never imagined that anyone could possibly want to read anything I’d written. When I turned thirty, however, I decided to give myself over to writing fiction entirely, and I did so (with mixed results). I got an MFA and then a PhD, and sixteen years after I decided I would be a writer, dammit, I have two books coming out. Which is very nice, but not at all what I imagined.
Could you share a representative or pivotal excerpt from your book? Perhaps something that invites the reader into the world of the book?
Yes! Here’s how the book’s first story, “Sometimes, They Kill Each Other,” opens:
“We’re worried about Misty. The youngest stenographer in the pool, she’s been with the firm less than three months. Like the rest of us, she graduated from Ms. Purdy’s Academy, the finest stenography school in the tri- state area, and like Penny, the most senior of us, and Phyllis and Mabel, identical twins who work in tandem, Misty took top honors in her class. It isn’t her typing or her shorthand that has us biting our manicured nails and tugging nervously on the collars of our cashmere sweaters. It’s her flagrant flouting of convention.
Each of us took an instant liking to Misty, from Holly, who can be an utter grump, to Janine, who’s recently switched to decaf, to Penny, who can take months to warm up to a new girl. Having come from Ms. Purdy’s, Misty fit into our tight- knit sweater-set- and- sensible- shoe collective nicely. The fact that her bangs were a bit short and her lipstick the wrong shade of pink didn’t bother us in the least—such imperfections made Misty more appealing. After gently correcting her mistakes, we felt a motherly sense of accomplishment, as though we’d had a hand in her development.
At eight a.m., we stenographers hit the ground running. We don’t stop until the other side of six p.m. There’s no nesting for us; unlike secretaries, we lack the luxury of a desk. Ours is a transient, hardscrabble existence, one that finds us perched on a chair in Personnel in the morning and, after an egg salad or turkey or ham on rye from the sandwich cart, wolfed in the elevator, trotting through the halls after a roaming, dictating vice president in the afternoon. With nothing but a notebook, two pencils, and a thermos full of strong black coffee (or decaf, in the case of Janine), we go where the wind blows us.”
Why did you choose this excerpt?
I chose this excerpt for the same reason that I placed this story at the beginning of the book: I believe the “we” POV invites the reader in, ushers them directly into the narrative, makes them feel as though they’re part of the action. I also believe that “Sometimes, They Kill Each Other” teaches the reader what’s to come: unconventional, darkly comic stories that will ask them to participate in meaning-making; stories that are concerned with what it is to be a woman, as well as a member of the human race.
What obsessions led you to write your book?
Mannequin and Wife is a literal map of my obsessions. Old things, the ties that bind us, genre-blending, classic Hollywood, femme fatales, Shakespeare, cannibalism, loneliness, coping strategies, nostalgia, the unknowable-ness of other people (not to mention ourselves), the deep ironies of human existence, and our all-powerful, all-consuming need for control.
I think every writer (of literary fiction at least) is driven almost exclusively by her desires. The trick is to learn how to shape and channel the product, how to formulate something that others can both grapple with and appreciate.
What’s the oldest story in your book? Or can you name one piece that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the book? What do you remember about writing it?
The story that opens Mannequin and Wife, “Sometimes, They Kill Each Other,” is the oldest story in the book. It’s the first story I wrote that (I feel) really works as a piece of short fiction. I wrote it while pursuing my MFA in 2009, and it took me so many tries to get it right. I tried situating the POV in several individual characters, but when the idea of using the collective first – “we” (the POV of the stenographers in the office) occurred to me, everything else fell into place, and I wrote the whole story (which is essentially the same version that’s in my book) in one sitting. Which has never happened since. Unfortunately!
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?
The title story, “Mannequin and Wife,” is the most recently-written piece in the book, and the opening story is the oldest, in terms of chronology. These stories were written over an eleven-year period, so there’s a good bit of distance between them. But I didn’t intentionally order the stories this way – oldest first, newest last. I just tried out various orders (there are twenty-two stories in the book, so this was quite a lengthy process!), and the final order is the one that seemed, to me, to work best.
In terms of the book’s title: I think Mannequin and Wife is not only intriguing but also aptly represents the book’s focus on the difficulty of navigating our most fundamental relationships.
What are you working on now?
I’m editing my next book, Tales the Devil Told Me, winner of the 2020 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, which is due out in May of 2021, and attempting to overhaul a novel, a work of speculative feminist historical fiction, set partly in Nashville in 1863 and partly in Ancient Greece.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
Definitely dance! My first aspiration was to be a Solid Gold dancer, and then a Fly Girl. I grew up dancing (ballet mainly, but also jazz and modern), and I really wanted to pursue it, but my body type is all wrong for ballet (I’m something of an Amazon), so it wasn’t in the cards.
As someone who must engage in intense daily cardiovascular exercise in order to survive, I still imagine that being a professional dancer – expressing my artistic impulses through my own body – would have been an ideal life for me. Of course, I’m also aware that in my imaginings, I am completely romanticizing the life of a dancer.
Jen Fawkes is the author of Mannequin and Wife: Stories (LSU Press). Her story collection Tales the Devil Told Me won the 2020 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction and is forthcoming in May 2021. Jen’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in One Story, Lit Hub, Crazyhorse, The Iowa Review, The Rumpus, Best Small Fictions 2020, and elsewhere, and has garnered prizes from Washington Square Review, The Pinch, Salamander, and others. She lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, with her husband and several imaginary friends.