This past summer, I had the good fortune to interview Emily Dezurick-Badran, author of the Issue 41 story “Remainder.” We discussed our mutual fears of pregnancy and parenthood, creepy forests, and Jennifer’s Body, among other things.
The following interview took place via Zoom and has been edited for clarity.
Berkeley Fiction Review: How did your idea for “Remainder” first come to you?
Emily Dezurick-Badran: I think that it happened the same way that most stories happen, which is that I get a narrative voice stuck in my head. Most often it’s a first-person narrative voice but not always. Sometimes I have a third-person or a second-person narrative [that] starts chatting at me. Basically, long lines are kind of running through my head. It was initially this narrator telling me about how they lost their virginity in the woods near their house, but then they were like, “Oh, I lose everything in the woods.”
I liked this idea of a mythical, magical level of things—tangible and intangible—getting lost, and so that was sort of the seed for it, but I only wrote a really really tiny amount, and then forgot that I had started it for a while, though.
BFR: In the author questionnaire that you sent in, I’d noticed that you mentioned that there was kind of an underlying message within “Remainder” that talks about the repercussions of our own upbringings on pregnancy and parenting. Can you talk a little bit about this, and why you included this message in your story?
Emily Dezurick-Badran: It wasn’t really a conscious thing, initially. Occasionally, I start a story with an idea, and I’m like, “Okay, we’re going to take this idea from beginning to end, using this as the end goal,” but most of the time I don’t really write that way. So this was one of those things that just kind of emerged. I mean, I’m in my late thirties now, so a lot of people I know have gone through this process of either deciding to be parents or not to be parents. I have never wanted to be a parent, but I’ve watched a lot of friends make that choice and then reproduce bad things that their parents did…or not, sometimes. I think it was more of just exploring what these choices mean for people’s lives, especially at this point in your life. When you make a decision to have kids, it opens something up and it closes something else off. People have a lot of ambiguity about that decision, which is really natural to have ambiguity about any major decision in your life, but that ambiguity or fear [about] pregnancy is not talked about.
I think it was partly seeing that and realizing how terrifying that is and how terrifying big life decisions like that are—how much is unknown, exploring what it means to go into something when you don’t know whether it’s going to be okay. You have no guarantee of that. That’s always very interesting to me and there are areas where there’s ambiguity. So, how much ambiguity there can be even in certain decisions just really interested me. I wish it were a better answer. I’m sorry, I don’t totally know what it’s about when I write things.
BFR: No, no. I think that really resonated with me. While I was reading the story, I was also reflecting back on my own thoughts about parenthood. I think what you said earlier was very true. Having a child—and the whole course of parenthood—is a very big deal. It’s definitely, to me, one of the biggest decisions that you can make, and also, in my mind, one of the scariest things that can happen to you because there’s so much that can happen. There’s so much that can go wrong, especially with raising your child, [because] how you act as a parent is very important.
While I was reading the story, I was like: “Wow, these characters are thinking very similarly and having kind of the same fears as I think I would have if I were pregnant and about to have a child.” I really enjoyed your discussion of that and the insight into the message behind it.
Now that we’ve covered the message behind “Remainder,” as you were writing it, was there anything in particular that inspired you? Like other books, movies, [movie stills], or local scenery? I know you’ve drawn from real life and your personal experiences, but was there anything else that really influenced you as you were writing this story?
Emily Dezurick-Badran: I think the big influence that’s really obvious is the style of the story. I had just finished reading Carmen Maria Machado’s book of short stories, Her Body and Other Parties, so I really had her narrative style and voice in my head at that time. I think that sometimes I write stories because—not necessarily consciously—I need to work through someone else’s narrative style and figure out what I’m going to use from that. I’m really interested in it, and it’s like, I need to write this story in my version. I need to write my version of someone’s story, in order to work through what I’ve just read, and this is definitely one of those. This is 100 percent in debt to that book. So, yeah, I would say that that was a huge, huge influence, but also every horror film about young women [was an influence].
I like horror films, but I really like Ginger Snaps or Jennifer’s Body—these body horror films that are really about… I mean, it is complicated, but often about young cis women who are really struggling with just being in a body and what does that mean to have this body that you’re wrestling with. [“Remainder”] is my version of that but with some queerness thrown in. It’s like the grown-up version of that adolescent horror narrative.
BFR: I think Jennifer’s Body, in particular, has been making a pretty large comeback among queer audiences now. I feel like it had less of an appreciation among audiences when it was released in the theaters. I’ve also been reading some Carmen Maria Machado. I finished In the Dream House, and I am actually reading her collection of short stories now, so I was excited when you brought it up!
As you’ve drafted “Remainder,” did your initial idea of the characters or the plot change at all? How did you decide on the ending that you did?
Emily Dezurick-Badran: For sure, it changed a lot, because it was really just this unformed idea. I think that the things that were in the original little bit that I wrote were a family member who disappears and things getting lost in the woods, and I knew that the protagonist was queer, so I had three elements that I finally used.
I’d love to have a more impressive story, but what really happened was that Noah Sanders from The Racket Reading Series asked me if I had something to read or an upcoming theme. The theme was nature, and I was like, “Oh, I’ve got that story idea, and if I just finish it, it’s gonna be perfect.” And so I sat down, and I looked at what I had, and I was like: “This is not usable. This is not a story. This is nothing.” But there was an idea.
I started to tease out those parts of it that, I think in the original, it was like the narrator was looking back on things that had already been lost and bringing into the present tense, meant that losing objects could propel the story along. Really pulling it from past tense to present tense, making it something that the reader and the narrator discovered at the same time, gave it some structure, and then the same thing with the pregnancy. It was like, on a literal level, what are the stakes? If you’re losing things in the woods, how big a deal is that actually, right? So it was like, what are the narrative stakes? I think that that’s where that came in, and again, I think it was just an unconscious thing of processing a lot of my own feelings, thoughts, and experiences around that. Those things always make it into a story. A story is always therapy, even if you don’t mean it to be. It doesn’t mean it’s productive therapy, but like, whatever is happening with you is going in, for sure. So yeah, so it really changed a lot.
BFR: The setting of the story—the forest—captured a very distinct mood in the way that you wrote it. It came off, at least to me, [as] pretty mysterious, a bit unnerving, and spooky. When you came up with this idea of parenthood and pregnancy, how did you decide on the setting of the forest? I know you mentioned the nature prompt earlier, but why the forest? And why did you write it with this atmosphere, if that’s the kind of mood you were intending?
Emily Dezurick-Badran: After I wrote it, I was like, “What is going on with me? Why do I keep writing about creepy forests?”
It was a theme in a different story I’d written a few years ago, and it’s actually a story that I’ve been working on recently. So it’s like, what is going on with me? What the hell? I sort of questioned my own feelings about the words about rural spaces. I was wondering whether there was some kind of unconscious bias. That was definitely a concern that I had that came up. I was like, “Is this some sort of unconscious bias against rural spaces, rural people, stereotyping, classism…like, is this what’s happening here?”
But a few months ago, my partner and I went to the woods—the Burney and Lassen National Park area in Northern California. Even though I grew up in San Francisco, I spent a lot of time there as a kid. It was like the summer destination that I would go to with my dad and his girlfriend. Every summer we would go there. PG&E had cabins for people who have been employees, so it was like totally no-frills, but you had a place to stay that wasn’t expensive. They still do it, by the way, it’s a whole program that they have secretly. They have vacation spots for people who work for PG&E. It was like this whole thing.
I spent so much time there as a kid. Going back this most recent time, it was really spooky. Beautiful, but really spooky, I realized, as I was there. Just the best smells of the flora. Even the dirt has a really distinctive smell, which I assume is from a combination of the chaparral and the fact that there’s been volcanic activity. I assume it’s all these things, but it has this really distinctive smell.
I realized it was bringing back all these memories, like, “Oh, I always had this sense of it being very mysterious, being much bigger than me and not really being scary or malevolent.” But definitely being somewhere that mysterious things way beyond my little human comprehension happened. I think that those really wild landscapes feel very much like they’re not ruled by human concerns, and especially not by whatever the structures are of American society, but that actual land has nothing to do with it and no interest in it. I just had a profound sense of revelation that the reason I kept writing about it was because I feel very connected to that land, and I love it. I also feel that sense of there being a grand mystery and things in the universe that are much bigger than me when I’m there. I don’t know. So I think that again, I’m always putting that into fiction because it fascinates me and because that’s sort of what fiction is…there for us to explore those things that are grand and mysterious and amazing.
BFR: I noticed that “Reminder” has this whole concept of sacrificing things that you love to the forest. This held a pretty strong emotional note in the story. What complexities about the characters in your story were you trying to convey here, as these things were being sacrificed?
Emily Dezurick-Badran: I think it really goes back to that idea of emotional ambiguity, and the fact that, socially, we tend to treat events as having very specific emotional and psychological notes. Birth is happy. Death is sad. I mean, these are things that are broadly true. The beginning of life is amazing, and the ending of life is terrifying and sad. There is a removal there. All of these experiences within them contain a lot of varied emotions. After my father died, my writing teacher at the time, Alex Chee, gave me this amazing piece of advice. He was just like, “Don’t be surprised by anything you feel.” Basically, he was like, “Everything’s on the table right now. It’s gonna be okay.”
Everything can happen. You can feel everything. I think that that’s very true of those experiences. Watching people go through other life changes around having children, around birth, and seeing that there is that emotional ambiguity, and an element of sacrifice to it. That doesn’t mean that the sacrifice is bad. Sacrifice can be this totally joyful choice that people make, which is something that I’ve come to terms with more recently. Like, how much people in my family sacrificed so that I can have a relatively comfortable life. I’m able to do things that one and two generations ago, my family didn’t have access to.
I kind of realized quite recently that sacrifice was not necessarily made angrily or in pain. It wasn’t like, “I’m going to sacrifice this, and then you should suffer because I sacrificed for you.” Sacrifices aren’t necessarily always made in that register. It was about exploring that double-edged sword of sacrifice: the fact that it can be beautiful; that we sacrifice for things that we love, for things that we want, for the things that we cherish, and for people who we love, want, and cherish. And at the same time, there can be pain in that. The joy of it doesn’t necessarily eliminate the pain.
I’m always really interested in emotional ambiguity, even when I’m teaching a writing class. It’s something that I really try to get people to move towards because I think it’s where a lot of really interesting writing comes from.
BFR: I think that ambiguity of emotion really came to me in the last scene, or somewhere around there. Their child is born, and the narrator is holding it in the hospital and reflecting on the fact that her fingers were green. They’ve lost so much: these memories, these physical objects, but [they] have this joy of having given birth to [their] child, and so that twisted emotion really came across very beautifully to me. And at that moment, you don’t really know what to feel. You’re like, “Oh, they’ve sacrificed so much, they’ve lost so much, but it’s also still such a beautiful moment.” I really love the whole emotion there. I think that was a great way to resolve the story, at that point. But as you were writing the story, did you come across any challenges in putting these words onto the page and conveying your ideas and the whole storyline?
Emily Dezurick-Badran: I mean, writing anything is always challenging. On a technical level, I had this deadline, at least for the first functional draft of the story, where I had to get done for a reading. I had to really get the story in shape. I had to make it a coherent shape by a certain time on a certain day, and I was working almost half an hour before I had to read it. So on that level, that was really challenging.
Working to a deadline and also working for reading, as opposed to for something in print, can be really useful. If you strip things away—and maybe you end up cutting too much and you have to put things back—I think it really helps the story from getting bogged down with other sorts of bonus material. The other challenge that I really had was the challenge of wanting to really write a story that was about pregnancy and parenting, but not wanting to offend or hit a sour note with people who are parents, which is definitely something that’s very possible when you haven’t been through those experiences. I did do some research about physical pregnancy and parenting, just to try to get that right, and to really think through what would feel like an insulting simplification to someone, and what would feel like it hit a true note. I don’t know if I got it right. You often don’t know until the story’s out there, but I definitely put thought into it.
BFR: Just to wrap things up, last question: you’ve published a lot of short fiction in the past. What about short fiction, in particular, do you think draws you to it?
Emily Dezurick-Badran: That’s a good question. I think that there were a few things. Some of the first writing that I really fell in love with when I was a kid was poetry. When I discovered you could memorize a poem, and then you had a poem…you always had it, it was always there because you could just say it to yourself anytime…
I think that short fiction can be more like poetry and that each line carries a little bit more weight. In a novel, writers can get away with a little more bagginess with their prose. Like: “Oh, well, it drags for five pages, but overall it’s a great book.” In a short story, you can’t really get away with that. Even if it drags for a paragraph, it’s really noticeable. It’s a real blemish on the reading experience. I find it really appealing that it demands that the work be rhythmically beautiful and that each part of it is necessary. I feel like you can do more things. You can try more things out with short fiction. If you’re writing a longer work, you can do a lot of experimentation, but you’re experimenting within a scene within a style, and with short fiction, you can play with different ideas. You can play with different styles. You can try things out. And that always really appeals to me.