Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Stephanie Dickinson’s fiction piece, Dorothy Millette Postcard
Sommer: I like how this story shows us the complexities of being a woman in modern society. Do you think the relentless marginalization and objectification of girls and women has destroyed many women’s mental health? What are the ways out of this, and how can women be a part of the solution?
Stephanie: Dorothy Millette’s story still has the power to fascinate a 21st century woman. Here is a woman raised in an Indiana orphanage. Burning with a passion for acting, she marries a reporter hoping he will help her. Soon she realizes that her dream will wither and die in Indianapolis. She abandons her marriage, moves to New York City, enrolls at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and meets Bern. Breakout! What an astonishing feat for its time—the early 20th century. Meanwhile her husband charges her with desertion and divorces her.
Bern describes Millette as ethereal, mysterious, lovely, a butterfly, and they live together for nine years without the benefit of marriage. Those words, although complimentary, or meant to be, are words of objectification. Nowhere in them is the recognition of personhood, and yet Millette seems not only mysterious but clearly talented, intelligent, and ambitious.
If girls are relentlessly marginalized in our culture, and they are, it is no wonder that women who are no longer girls, no longer young women, are pariahs and often objects of ridicule in the street.
As an aside to our discussion of the complexities facing women in terms of objectification, I wanted to mention a co-worker who is in her fifties, striking, an actress, as well as a high-level administrative assistant. A few weeks ago she was strap-hanging in her subway car. The car was so full she had to stand right in front of a seated young man who glanced up at her, took in her face, then his eyes stared directly ahead into her midsection. “You got some old pussy!” he said, loudly. She froze. Her cheeks flamed, she couldn’t move, wasn’t sure she could ever move. Then he repeated what he had said, only louder, like a jackhammer, harsh enough so every person in the crowded car heard. “YOU GOT SOME OLD PUSSY.” Five words in upper case, the capital letters of shout and insult. Objectification. Marginalization. Reduction to a sex organ that has an expiration date.
Why did you choose to fictionalize a historical event, and why include actual quotes? Any tips for writers wanting to write historical fiction or fiction based on documented occurrences?
It’s fascinating to reimagine a historical event or enter a historical figure’s world, and not necessarily a well-known one, to try to look through their eyes at their surroundings, to reveal their innerness through image. It was Virginia Woolf who said, “Read a thousand books and the words flow like a river.” If writing historical fiction, it’s helpful to look at some brilliant works that exemplify the range of historical fiction.
Among my favorites is Insect dreams, a novella by RPS. In it, a German-born naturalist and botanical illustrator, Maria Sibylla (1647-1717), journeys to South America to study and catalogue insect and plant life. In her caterpillar engravings she depicts the metamorphosis of moths and butterflies. Stevenson tells the story lyrically in a series of letters to her trip’s benefactors in The Netherlands. We inhabit Sibylla, explore the jungle, and watch the delicate transformations of insects. Stevenson uses placement and white space and poetry to create what critics have called a “fever dream.” At the same time she captures the underlying violence. We hear the drumming of the escaped slaves and witness the brutality at their capture.
On that note, do you find that you often get your inspiration from actual events? At what point(s) does the factual become the imaginative? And does the writer owe any allegiance to “the facts”?
I’ve done a series of flash fictions entitled Big-Headed Anna after a great-aunt born with a large head. She’d rarely been spoken of and it was as if the big head rendered her a non-being. I created a Big-Headed Anna, who wandered through the early 20th century South, a drifter picking up servant jobs. It’s more ambiguous this notion of what allegiance the writer owes to the facts. We know the many writers who have been humiliated for fictions they’ve embedded in their memoirs. Hemingway too was scorned by the real people, many of whom were friends, whose biographies he took wholly from real life in The Sun Also Rises.
Which writers or literary works have most inspired or influenced you?
Here is my short list of literary lightning bolts. Jean Rhys’ Voyage in the Dark and After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, Kate Braverman’s Lithium for Medea, Asli Erdogan’s The City in Crimson Cloak, Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s The Orchard, Georg Trakl’s The Last Gold of Expired Stars, Rob Cook’s The Undermining of the Democratic Club, Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, Darcey Steinke’s Suicide Blonde, Sybille Bedford’s Jigsaw and A Legacy, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage, Jill Hoffman’s Jilted and Gates of Pearl, and Charlotte Delbo’s Auschwitz. AndRosalind Palermo Stevenson’s Insect dreams, of course.
Any advice for writers on handling rejection?
We have to bear rejection, writers, artists, actors, musicians, all of us. Hard as it is, rejection is the artist’s lot—the wafer of an acceptance and the stone bread of a rejection. No matter how long you’ve been submitting and publishing, it never ends. It hurts and yet it often is truly a matter of reading the journals you’re interested in submitting to. I have close friends who simply can’t handle rejections. Remember, if it was easy to get published the value of an acceptance would be less. Let the acceptance cast its glow and see you through the rejections. Be assured that it’s not just you, it’s all of us. We are the breed apart writing in solitude but together. Often journal editors’ comment on rejection forms that the work sent wasn’t right for them. We hear that over and over and yet many times it’s true. Then on top of rejection we have our friends trumpeting their acceptances and it’s discouraging. Take heart, the acceptances will come, and they will taste as sweet as honey.
Thank you for doing this interview with me, and congratulations!
Sommer Schafer is a senior editor of the Forge Literary Magazine.