An Interview with Fiction Writer Bess Winter
On finding voice, inspiration, and how to embrace doll collecting
Bess Winter has written on the topics of dolls, mummies, taxidermy, death, horse tails, stolen eggs, Victorians, primates, private school girls, daguerreotypes, gas leaks, etc. Her work appears in Kenyon Review, American Short Fiction, Gettysburg Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Ecotone, W.W. Norton's Flash Fiction International, and elsewhere, and has been awarded a Pushcart Prize and the American Short[er] Fiction Prize. She's received fellowships and scholarships from Yaddo, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Sewanee Writers' Conference. She grew up in Toronto, Canada. Her debut collection, Machines of Another Era, was released by Gold Wake Press in 2021.
Alanna Gillis (AG): We read your story Bad in one of my classes here at Behrend. In it, you write from the perspective of a young girl who gets overcome by an impulse to cut off a horse's tail. Where did that story come from, and how do you approach writing from the perspective of someone who is different from yourself, in this case a child?
Bess Winter (BW): That story was written while I was at an artists' residency under the auspices of writing a novel. I was having a hard time of it and feeling the weight of expectation that the residency placed on my shoulders. I suppose I felt "bad" for not writing as much as I should: the way I used to feel about myself quite often as a little girl who had about as much respect for authority as a kid in a Roald Dahl book. I was reading the newspaper there and came across a report of a crime that was being investigated: on some ranch, maybe in Texas, horses' tails were being cut off (just the hair, not the bone) and stolen. This is a terrible thing to do to a horse because, like the story mentions, their tails don't grow back. I felt my way into the story from there.
Unless it's non-fiction (and even sometimes when it is) I always write from a perspective that's not mine. I see it as a form of acting, which I studied in undergrad, and often tell students that the best way to learn to write is to take an acting class. In an acting class you learn to inhabit other points-of-view and ways of thinking, and to empathize with characters who may be entirely different from you. That being said, every character a writer creates is also part of themselves, just like the little girl, Sasha, at the center of Bad, is part of me.
AG: You've published a lot of stories. What is your favorite and why?
BW: Choosing a favorite is tough, like choosing a favorite child. But I'm very fond of Helena, Montana because it marked a new stage for me in my style and subject matter. It was also the first story of mine Woody Skinner (my husband) ever read. It was first published in Alaska Quarterly Review.
AG: How would you describe your relationship to writing? Has it changed over time? If so, how?
BW: In my teens and 20s I wrote because I wanted to be a famous writer. Now I write because I want to create good experiences for other people.
AG: What are your biggest inspirations when writing stories?
BW: I'm interested in the flotsam and jetsam of history and culture, so I'm just as influenced by interesting old signs, doodads I find in antique malls, BBC and CBC historical dramas, and the American Girl dolls and books from the 90s as I am by the work of E. Annie Proulx, Lydia Davis, Alice Munro, Susanna Clarke, Hilary Mantel, Penelope Fitzgerald, and Barbara Comyns.
AG: What was the process of finding your authorial voice like? How did you know when you found it?
BW: It took longer than I ever thought it would, and I didn't know when I'd found it. Partly that's because a voice needs to change, somewhat, for different projects. But, also, when you're a young writer, you get defensive about your tics — often, the tics that are actually holding your work back — and insist that they're your voice. I had a lot of that insistence about things like italics versus quotation marks. That wasn't my voice; that was a stylistic choice. Voice is so inherent to your work that it will remain even if you remove all the formatting, take it out of that special font you always use. I had to amass a body of work and really understand it as a whole to realize I had a voice at all.
AG: What draws you to write about certain subjects, like dolls for example? How do you choose what the subjects of your stories will be?
BW: Everything I write about is something that both fascinates me and makes me uncomfortable in some way. I love and am genuinely interested in dolls. There's a stigma surrounding them and the people who collect them despite the fact that there's a huge canon of literature about dolls and many writers and celebrities are collectors. Anne Rice had a major collection, and Johnny Depp is one of the world's most prolific Barbie collectors. Writing about them, and my interest in them, initially made me uncomfortable but also fascinated me, like the feeling of wiggling a loose tooth with your tongue. So, I knew it was something I needed to write about.
AG: How have you improved at your craft over the years? Are there any writing exercises you find beneficial and/or fun that helped you create new stories or improve your abilities?
BW: Reading — widely, and with curiosity. Everything from manuals to classics to new work. I don't do writing exercises much anymore, but I found them very helpful early on. There are a few I love to share with students. One is to take a story in progress and tell it in a sentence. Read it to yourself. If it's working, this sentence should create a feeling in you — a reaction that makes you go, "ah!" This is a great way to test whether your story actually has a plot. No "ah?" Can't finish the sentence? No plot. The basis of this idea comes from Aristotle's Poetics.
AG: Do you have any advice for young writers?
BW: Read everything. Stay curious. Don't worry about what people say on the internet — it's not real life.
AG: Last question. What are you currently working on?
BW: I'm finishing a novel based on my grandparents' lives in Vienna and their subsequent escape from the Holocaust.
Alanna Gillis, a senior in the BFA program at Penn State Behrend, interviewed fiction writer Bess Winter in anticipation of her visit to Behrend next week as part of the Smith Creative Writers Reading Series. Winter and her husband, the fiction writer Woody Skinner, will read from their work on Thursday, Oct. 19, at 6:00 p.m. in the Metzgar building. For more information visit: behrend.psu.edu/readings