Today's interviewee is yet another super awesome lady Chicago writer who manages to balance a family life and a job while somehow also being prolific and creative and interesting as hell--seriously, when I read about her story ideas I just want to scoop out a tablespoon of her brain and add it to mine because I need more of her type of imagination. Jami Attenberg calls her the "the mistress of grit." Hunter is the author of the new novel Ugly Girls, about a messed-up friendship between two girls that gets even more frought when they meet an online "fan." She is also the author of the short story collections Daddy's and Don't Kiss Me, and is the co-founder of the dearly-departed Chicago reading series Quickies! You can learn more about her here.
When I read the synopsis of Ugly Girls, it reminds me of that movie Heavenly Creatures. What books, stories or movies influenced your novel?
Oooh, good one! I saw that a long time ago and loved it. You're totally right - the toxic, devolving friendship between Perry and Baby Girl is very similar to that friendship. Man. Kate Winslet was a baby!
I'd say Cruddy was a big influence, and the other day I was watching Drop Dead Gorgeous and it hit me that there is a lot in that movie that seems similar to UG? Like, Kirsten Dunst has green eyes and blonde hair, like Perry, and lives in a trailer park with an alcoholic mother, like Perry. I loved that movie in my early 20s so it makes sense that it would creep in to my writing.
A huge influence was the book Ravens by George Dawes Green. I basically just wanted to write that book all over again but with female protagonists. My book ended up being very different, but Ravens was and is what I aspire to. It's a masterpiece.
What other titles, if any, did you consider for the book?
I almost called it "The Edge of Ugly" and "The Quarry." For a hot minute I was all about the title "The Unloved" as well. But I kept coming back to Ugly Girls.
How did you celebrate your pub day?
I'm so bad at that. I was expecting my husband to do something! He was like "Happy Pub Day?" Fin. I think I just tried to take stock and remember how lucky I am and to say thank you as much as possible. AND, after my book release at City Lit, we ordered Olive Garden takeout and watched crappy TV.
Why do you think female friendships can be so fraught?
I think because we're really hard on ourselves. Really, really hard on ourselves, and we turn that judging eye on those we love, too. I remember reading this thing, and I don't remember where it came from or if it's b.s., but basically it was saying that men can work with people they don't like, but women can't. It feels true, at least for me. My emotions are so present that it's impossible for me to approach a relationship without bringing all of them right along. AND, I think women are even more competitive than men.
I read that you used to work a 9-5. What did you do? Did you like it? Were you able to write and work?
I still work a 9-5! I'm a Senior Instructional Designer at a company called NogginLabs in Ravenswood. We build custom e-learning courses for a variety of clients. I wish I could quit and just write but that's not affordable for our family right now. It's really, really, really hard. For this novel, I took an unpaid month-long sabbatical during which I just put my head down and wrote all day, and by the end of that month I had almost a full draft. I knew I had to work fast because I was pregnant, and it was kind of now or never. Editing took place whenever I could find the time--I took more time off, or I fit it in during naps. I don't want to give the impression that writing during naps is a real thing, though. For me, IT ISN'T. I need to know I have like a 4-hour block of time, but when it was necessary I just kind of had to put my head down and bang it out. Essentially, I feel like I have 3 9-5 jobs: mother, worker, writer. It's nuts.
I love that you started a reading series based on short readings. Can we just talk for a second about what compels authors to read for a long time? I want to get in and out--at worst, it's short if people hate it, and at best, leave them wanting more!
PRECISELY. Mary Hamilton and I were going to so many readings in grad school, and they were all mostly tedious and overwrought. (Except for The Dollar Store, which is legendary.) We wanted to start a series 1. so we could practice reading and 2. so we could make it a fun thing. That's how we came up with the constraint of 5 (later 4) minutes or less, complete story, no excerpts, no poetry. That way the audience knew if the story sucked, it was only 5 minutes. If it was great, you couldn't wait to talk to that person after.
You received a two-book contract from FSG. To an author like me, having a promise that a publisher wants to publisher two of your books sounds like everything. What are the downsides or hard parts that come with writing under contract like that?
I feel so, so lucky. I think writers are always viewing their own work with 96% shame, 4% pride, so when someone shows interest, it can feel truly wonderful. And suspicious. Ha, maybe I'm actually only describing myself? The downsides and hard parts were, for me, that I'd write a book that FSG didn't like. FSG has such a storied history, a truly amazing publishing canon, and they want me?? It really speaks to Emily Bell, my editor, and her interest in finding writers who aren't writing the same old shit. She takes risks and I think she is rewarded again and again. I think the other hard part for some people would be the deadlines, but I love and need those as a writer. They're essential. I work best under pressure.
I see that you're a healthy social networker: what rules do you have (if any?) for allotting time for work and time for that sort of stuff?
I should definitely have rules, but I don't. I feel like crafting a tweet or an Instagram is kind of a small creative thing that I really, really enjoy doing. It's very satisfying in that way. I think I try to just let myself go with my impulses there. Where it starts getting hairy is when I get into my constantly-checking-Twitter-mode. That's when I have to step away and go look at a tree or something. Like, let's remember that there is an actual tactile world out there.
What are the best and worst things about being a writer in Chicago?
This community is everything. It's so welcoming and fun and creative. It embraces writers and ignores haters. I think it's the best community for someone like me, who is writing "edgy" stuff while harboring a healthy amount of insecurity. The worst part about it is that it's in Chicago, where the winters are murderous.
How has having a kid affected your creative life?
I have so much less time! That is an obvious answer, but there it is. On weekends, when I'm home with him, I just want to hang out with him, not go to the basement and write. When he naps I just want to sit and do nothing at all. I feel so busy all the time that doing nothing is an indulgence I can't tear myself away from. I think, also, I want him to be proud of me. Like, "my mom writes books." He came to my book release, saw my book, pointed, and said "Mama!" Good Lord, it was amazing.
What do you make of being a mother to a boy?
I was convinced he was a girl for the first 20 weeks of my pregnancy. I knew he was a girl. Knew it in my bones. When I found out he was a boy, there was a moment of confusion, but then joy flooded in. He feels like my soulmate. That goes beyond gender, though. I guess boy-specific stuff I love about him are that he has boundless energy, he never stops, he is totally fearless, and he loves his momma. He's my best friend.
What's the cutest thing he's done lately? The worst?
Cutest: this morning we were watching It's Thanksgiving, Charlie Brown! and Snoopy put on a pilgrim hat. Parker ran out of the room, I was like ?, and he came back with a hat on his head.
Okay, one more, because it's hat-related. My mom sent me this reclaimed-materials hat as a small gift for pub day, and I put it on while P still had his hat on, and he grinned so huge, pointed at my hat, then his own, then back to mine, then back to his, and we laughed and laughed about us both wearing hats.
Worst: he might be out of this phase right now, but lately when he's overtired and wanting to show us how much he loves us, he bites. HARD. And bites harder the more you tell him no. But we've talked about it with him a lot, and he seems to have stopped doing it.
How much thought have you given to how much you will let motherhood infiltrate your writing?
I keep trying to fight it, but I'm almost at the point where I'm going to stop fighting it. I want to write about it so bad. But so many have come before me and done wonderful things (mom blogs, poetry, novels). So I feel dumb. But I have so much to say. I think, actually, motherhood has come into play despite myself in my recent stories. In my first book there were all these dead babies (ugh). Lately it's kind of more about family dynamics.
How does it feel to be the 398th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
I'm so proud. I've been reading you for like a decade. I am PLEASED AS PUNCH!