In the world of fiction, there is no shortage of stories in which beautiful, wide-eyed fillies waltz innocently into the path of worldly male authority figures who are quick to take advantage. It’s an irritatingly common cliché—one that speaks to our assumptions about young women’s desires and capabilities.
In Supercops, Liesl Schillinger’s latest short story for Playboy, teenage Meredith is one such girl—or is she? Determined to gain sexual experience before heading off to college, she embarks on an affair with a local professor, a friend of her parents. Meanwhile, two of her male classmates—boorishly confident after discovering that Meredith “didn’t know to cross her legs when she wore miniskirts” in AP chemistry—spend their time following her around to sleuth out the secrets they’re sure she’s keeping. The elegantly complex story permits us to see around each character’s point of view and evades both tropes and easy answers.
Schillinger is a fiction writer, a critic and a translator. She speaks five foreign languages, has written for The New Yorker and The New York Times Book Review and is the author of Wordbirds: An Irreverent Lexicon for the 21st Century, a book of playful neologisms. We talked about inverting the ingenue, Our Orange Leader’s relationship with language, her own coming-of-age and political sex farces—plus much more.
Supercops inverts a series of narrative clichés—the young woman seduced by an older man, the spunky detectives who nail their mark. Instead, the young woman uses the older man to achieve her singular purpose, calls him out on his assumptions about her naivete, and breaks up with him; and the classmates who insist on trailing her never learn much of anything. (They also assume that she has inadvertently revealed—not intentionally displayed—the pattern of her panties.) What made you decide to turn these ideas on their heads?
I suppose I wanted to reinvent the “ingenue role,” from the ingenue’s perspective. When you see a young woman portrayed positively in film, theater, television or literature, it’s nearly always a fairly one-note presentation of a charming, clueless, deer-in-the-headlights kind of person who passively waits to be scooped up by some guy. I find it so exasperating. All around me, all my life, I’ve encountered beautiful, confident, self-directed young women who are also sweet, vital, warm and sexy—but are neither prey nor predator. With Meredith, I wanted to put forth the example of a clear-eyed young woman like that, who rejects the roles that convention supplies (i.e., wide-eyed mildling or bad-girl floozy). She’s a good girl, and a smart one, and sets out—discreetly—to acquire sexual expertise before going to college, so inexperience won’t make her vulnerable when on her own. In other words: She wants to say “yes” on her own terms, so that one day at some college keg party she’ll have the guts to say “no.”
I wanted to reinvent the ‘ingenue role,’ from the ingenue’s perspective. I wanted to put forth the example of a clear-eyed young woman who rejects the roles that convention supplies—wide-eyed mildling or bad-girl floozy.
Meredith is not a rebel. I think there are a lot of Merediths out there. She’s been raised both to resent the double standard and to respect it. She does not want her affair to become a subject of gossip, and she does not want her status as a sexual being to blur and engulf her prior distinct outline. But when she puts her theory of sex as morally neutral extracurricular into practice, she keeps running into obstacles. She thinks she’s seducing her older lover, but he doesn’t see it that way, and neither does anyone else. The nerdy boys at school whom she thinks of as peers objectify her in ways she doesn’t suspect, and they spy (blunderingly) on her escapades. And she can’t even seem to avoid judging herself. But she forges ahead. I’m so proud of her for refusing to do the expected, conventional thing, and insisting on her right to direct her own sexual steps…and missteps.
Part of the tension of Supercops is the way you switch between Meredith’s perspective and that of her male classmates trying to suss out her secrets. What made you choose to employ these point-of-view shifts? Meredith’s self-seriousness cracks me up; she’s always intellectualizing her intentions and her actions. In some ways, I think she sees herself as a disembodied psyche, a gender-neutral creature like Marlene Dietrich—who, as Kenneth Tynan wrote, had “sex but no positive gender.” The boys serve a few purposes. First, they constantly remind us of Meredith’s physical presence, which is inseparable from who she is, though she doesn’t realize it. Their salacious monitoring of her underwear and her nighttime jaunts acts like elbow jabs in the ticklish part of the waist, affirming her fleshliness. Second, because they’re her classmates and, therefore, her age, they remind you that Meredith is as young as they are. She’s acting as if she were 30. But that’s just acting. She’s actually 18, and missing out on being 18. Wouldn’t she rather have quart Koolees with Neil and Trevor and her friends than red wine with the professor? Then again…the “Supercops” are so annoying and immature that they help you see why Meredith felt the need to venture outside of high school for her sentimental education. But still, at the end of the summer, the Supercops are still in her life, and the professor is not.
One of the pleasures of Supercops is how the loss of virginity, while being centered in Meredith’s goals, is dispatched with in a single, expositional sentence. Are we culturally obsessed with virginity (the language surrounding it, its commodification, its ability to be “lost”) disproportionate to its significance?
I actually suspect that virginity may be less of a cultural obsession among girls Meredith’s age today than it was at the time this story is set, 20 years ago. That said, there are always communities (often faith-based) in which virginity still really matters; and even now, plenty of college students (male and female) arrive on campus as virgins, and take their time changing that status. Virginity was a big deal for Meredith because of her community, which was fairly conservative; because of her reading, which had filled her head with 19th-century notions of virtue that were defunct long before she was born; and, contrarily, because of her ideas of modern female empowerment, which led her to think she should do away with her virginity rather than let it loom over her and hold her back. It’s interesting that you say her loss of virginity is expressed in a single sentence. On one level, that’s absolutely true, but I think of the virginity section as lasting for two pages. It’s the slow dawning in Meredith, as she assesses and compares the before-and-after, that she had accorded too much mystery to sex, too little to love. But for all her second-guessing, I think her decision to wait until she wasn’t a “statistic” would have won out, no matter what. The primary thing was that she chose when and how to lose her virginity; it was under her control. Only after settling that would she begin to understand that love, which was never under her control, mattered more.
In Supercops, you write: “She told herself that, after graduation, a woman not only had the right, she had the responsibility to use her body the way she saw fit—or what was feminism for? The pill had been around for decades, couples lived together before marriage these days, a young woman should be as free to sow her wild oats as a man.” What are you feelings about contemporary feminism as it relates to sexual freedom? Do you see Meredith’s perspective as a reflection of your own perspective, or commentary on it?
It amazes me that, nearly 60 years after the advent of the pill, and more than half a century into the sexual revolution, young American women, particularly high-school and college-age women, still have so little control over how their sexuality is perceived, and so little range in how they can deploy their desire to good effect. Girls grow up being encouraged to achieve, dare and dream; then, upon hitting adolescence (bloom time) they find they’re expected to be passive, not active, if they want approval. Those who take what is sometimes called a “sex-positive” attitude can quickly find their reputations sullied. Perhaps there’s something retrogressive in desire itself—between men and women, at least—that perpetuates the two basic roles for young women I mentioned earlier: wide-eyed innocent or tawdry hussy. There are variations on those two archetypes—you saw them on Sex and the City in the 1990s, and you can see them on Girls in this decade. Meredith wanted to go a third way, but it was trickier to pull off than she’d imagined. It’s funny; I detect a much kinder, warmer climate of LGBTQ tolerance among my millennial friends than existed when I was their age, but even they, when they couple up, male-female, seem to me remarkably traditional. I feel that feminism has been losing ground over the last two decades, and I fear that what you don’t defend, you lose. Meredith was meant to record a time of greater possibility for female self-expression in this country, and show the obstacles that would block its progress.
Feminism has been losing ground over the last two decades, and I fear that what you don’t defend, you lose.
Your fiction displays a fascination with women’s voices, experiences, agency and decisions, and the hapless men who orbit those women. What feeds this interest?
I’m not sure if the men are orbiting the women or the women are orbiting the men. I think it’s more often the latter, and I wonder why. Perhaps that’s what feeds my interest. It must be the case that they orbit each other. At any rate, they’re inseparable. I once told my mother that she was the staircase in my brothers’ and my lives; our father was the floor. (No staircase without a floor.) The women I’ve known—my mother and her friends, my aunts, my grandmothers and my friends—amaze me because they are so multifarious—endlessly creative and generative, capable of doing so many different things, and displaying so many forms of energy and creative expression. But then a man will come along and, with one or two simple, definitive gestures, entirely alter what this woman or that one does. It’s as if his presence causes her to overwrite her program, to reinvent herself. I am fascinated by how one person—male or female—can change the shape, color and direction of another person’s life. With one or two exceptions, my fiction has been concerned with these moments of impact and shift.
What are your narrative obsessions and curiosities? What sends you into “fiction” mode, as opposed to essays or other forms?
I have only begun writing fiction in earnest in the last few years, and that has coincided with a spate of personal essays too. This has been prompted by my late-coming realization of how thoroughly and irrevocably the decades that shaped me have disappeared. I feel an urgent need to reanimate the places, the people, the times, the manners I knew and loved, and make a record of them while I can, because that experience will be lost if I don’t find a way to preserve it. Baudelaire wrote that there is no such thing as the present, only a bridge between the past and the future. The “present” moments that are so alive for me, from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, can only exist for others if I can capture them in art (writing, fashion, etc.). My narrative obsessions—well, they are legion. I loved so many of the 19th century European (and Russian) greats, and then Joyce, Pritchett, Graham Greene, Edna O’Brien, V.S. Naipaul and Ann Tyler in the 20th. In the 21st, I loved Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk and, lately, George Saunders’s masterpiece Lincoln in the Bardo. I’m a sucker for biographies of English eccentrics, WWI and WWII histories, and elegiac poetry. And I love short stories. Right now I’m reading a book of Russian short stories to bone up on my Russian, given the re-freezing Cold War.
In addition to writing fiction, you also work as a translator. How does the process of translating other writers’ work affect your own writing, and your relationship with language?
I think that knowing foreign languages (I’ve translated from French, German and Italian, and have also worked in Russian and Spanish) and spending time in foreign countries long ago transformed and rewired my relationship with English. I saw that language controls perception. Depending on the language you’re speaking, and the country you’re in, you apprehend a different reality. So the stakes feel awfully high to me to get the exact word, the exact resonance, when I’m writing in English. Working as a critic for 20 years has also made me very critical of my own output. I think that’s likely one reason I don’t finish more long fiction projects. I can spend hours on one sentence and still be unsatisfied, unsure I couldn’t find a more felicitous alternative. That said, translation is less taxing for me than creative writing and journalism. It tends to seem clear to me, when I read a foreign phrase, which words should replace it. There’s a limited number of possibilities, which to me is a relief. The constraint is liberating. That said—much more liberating if the author you’re translating is not alive to quibble with your choices.
Do you speak any other languages besides those five?
No, I only speak English, besides those others. And I really only consider myself genuinely fluent in French, but I speak conversationally (and incorrectly) in all the others, understand them better than I speak them, and read them. I’ve studied French, German and Russian most extensively. My parents were college professors and pulled strings so I could attend undergraduate language courses at Purdue when I was 10, which is how my love of languages started. I studied French for four years solid, after or before my regular school, and added German to the mix at 12. In French 101, one day I showed up at the language lab for our French film lesson, and in the corridor outside, one of the students called out, “Hey, kid, how old are you?” I said, “10.” Another student shouted, “All right! I win the pizza!” Two years later, I had to go to a makeup language lab session (my family had been away on a break), and watch a film with another student who’d missed it too, in a private screening room. He said, “You’re brave, watching this film with me.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because I might make a pass at you.” I said, “No you wouldn’t!” He said, “Why not? You’re an attractive young woman.” I said, laughing, “Because I’m 12!” He seemed to accept my logic. He was very good-looking, as I recall. TMI. I studied Russian and Italian at college and picked up Spanish from a Chilean boyfriend and from reading Vanidades.
In your book Wordbirds, entries seem to extend from a translator’s relationship with words and a critic’s eye for patterns and foibles of contemporary life. We’re in a unique political situation, with an administration that plays fast and loose with words and their definitions. Any thoughts about how language is being used in the current cultural climate? Any words you want to coin to help cement or explain our national predicament?
First, on the lighter side: My favorite wordbird is cancellelation—the joy you feel when something gets canceled that you hadn’t wanted to go to in the first place. And I also like polterguy—an ex-boyfriend who haunts you, and mumblenym—a word you say wrong because you’ve read it but have never heard it pronounced. I’m always hearing little echoes and spotting cognates in foreign words that make me yearn to coin a wordbird, but I have to make sure it is relatable. For instance, a couple of weeks ago I thought of the German word Trauer, which means mourning, and thought, “Hey, ‘Trump Trauer’ rhymes with Trump Tower” and would be a good phrase for the feelings of despair and gloom felt by so many Americans. But I knew it was too foreign to catch on. Another inspiration, which I think should catch on, is Kremlingate, the name I give to the scandal—a thousand times worse than Watergate—of Russian collusion with the Trump team to affect the U.S. presidential election.
Language is being terribly abused in the current cultural climate.
Language is being terribly abused in the current cultural climate. Every day you hear the phrase “fake news,” which is being used by the president to delegitimize reporting that does not flatter him or rubberstamp his agenda. A couple of political neologisms in the Wordbirds book continue to resonate. For instance—“conservaschism: the early 21st-century divide in the U.S. Congress between moderate Republicans and far-right extremists who refuse compromise at any cost,” and “contaminotion: a spurious, wrong-headed idea that spreads virally and poisons public discourse.” For example: President Trump’s repeated, unevidenced and untrue claim that Hillary Clinton’s 3 million extra popular votes were all fraudulent. In the Soviet Union, such contaminotions were part of a program of dezinformatsiya—lies spread propagandistically to affect popular opinion, which Russia deployed so effectively, with Trump’s enthusiastic exhortation, in this country last fall. Another Soviet expression brought back by Trump is “enemy of the people,” invented by Lenin and used under Lenin and Stalin to shame and punish anyone they disliked. Thousands of “enemies of the people” were sent to the gulag and executed without justice. I’m getting the feeling that if I want to mint words to characterize the ongoing desecration of our democracy, I’d better do it fast.
In 2015 you wrote, using the language of romance novels and fairy tales, about the (very real) sex farce happening among the political elite in France. What is the relationship between fictional forms and nonfiction for you? Does one help us understand the other?
That essay was tremendously fun to write, but you’d be surprised at how much research went into it. It reads light, but it was actually news (most of it fresh to American readers), masquerading as a tower of bon-bons. I read a dozen books and scores of articles to source the story, plucking out the choicest bits to assemble the fairy tale. Nothing in it could be factually wrong, because I knew if any mistake appeared, a thousand French reporters would write in to say “Quelle horreur!” I was so impressed with my editor for going for the piece, which I’d proposed on a complete whim, because I simply could not believe the incestuous twists and turns at the Élysée. (Which at the time, I could not think could ever occur at the White House. Now? Who knows.) After that piece went up, Kim Kardashian followed me on Twitter. Maybe I ought to turn my thoughts to an American celeb fairy tale….
In both fiction and nonfiction I like an assured voice and a smooth and elegant arc. The nonfiction I admire (memoirs, biographies and war histories are my favorite) shows the storytelling skills and attention to character that the best fiction writers use. For instance, Katherine Boo’s wonderful book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, about the squabbling residents of a Mumbai slum, reminded me of some of the interpersonal dynamics of V.S. Naipaul’s brilliant Trinidad novel, A House for Mr. Biswas. And George Saunders’s thrilling novel Lincoln in the Bardo splices sonorous, poignant excerpts from the historical record into his storytelling, magnifying the effect of his invention. So I think nonfiction and fiction serve each other well. I believe some of the most important truths reside in fiction, because fiction gives the authors a scrim to hide behind that allows them to express what they actually feel; whereas nonfiction writers, having no such scrim, must be more guarded.
You have yet to publish a full-length book of your own fiction, whether short stories or a novel. Are you at work on anything like that at the moment?
I have a novel in a drawer, and I’m at work on a new one (which is not about a hapless man!). But I’ve been taking detours to write short stories, which come more naturally to me. There does always seem to be something that pulls me from my desk. This week, it’s judging 60 French translations. And if there isn’t some distraction next week, I’ll probably invent one.
Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, NPR, Guernica, Electric Literature, Gulf Coast, Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, Best Horror of the Year, Year’s Best Weird Fiction and Best Women’s Erotica. Her short story “The Husband Stitch” was nominated for the Shirley Jackson and Nebula Awards, awarded a Pushcart Prize Special Mention and long-listed for the Tiptree Award. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the Michener-Copernicus Foundation, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the CINTAS Foundation, the Speculative Literature Foundation, the University of Iowa, the Yaddo Corporation, Hedgebrook and the Millay Colony for the Arts. She is the Artist in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Philadelphia with her partner.