Getting to Know TRP author Theodora Bishop

Contributing writer Elizabeth Evans recently interviewed 2016 Clay Reynolds Novella Prize runner up and author of On the Rocks, Theodora Bishop. 

What inspired On the Rocks?

On the Rocks was originally a short story I wrote the first winter I spent in Alabama (I lived in Tuscaloosa for four years while completing my MFA at the University of Alabama). I had wanted to write a story that takes place over the course of a family party, a situation ripe for inspiration in and of itself.

But when I was finished writing the party sequence, I knew I wasn’t finished with the narrator. I had too much fun negotiating the blend of embarrassment and empathy that imbues Eva’s depictions of her family, her mother particularly. So while I was drawn to creating and finding out what the other characters that populate the party were up to, I was also committed to exploring the relationship between Eva and her mother, Leonora: what accounted for their blatant differences, yet intensely deep relationship? While it was Leonora’s bridal shower that provided the germ for the story, it was Eva’s voice that compelled me to develop a larger backdrop. I knew Eva had more to say, and that the means by which she orbited within the stumbling system that characterizes her family and childhood memories would require a larger canvas. This exploration is what ultimately expanded into the novella, On the Rocks.

The mother-daughter dynamic between Eva and Leonora is fascinating and a huge part of the novella. What was it like writing this relationship?

Continuously surprising. Looking back at previous drafts, what is most interesting to me now is how Leonora evolved. Leonora can be hilarious, selfish, narcissistic, and even vulgar, but is eternally dear and endearing to her daughter. Eva, on the other hand, is most comfortable being a wallflower, and a highly scrutinizing one, at that. I can identify with attributes of Eva’s in a way that I cannot with Leonora, who became easier to write because of these differences. Originally, Leonora seemed like a more sympathetic character; allowing her to be more flawed in subsequent drafts of the novella made her more real to me.

What inspired the town of Ship Bottom? Is it based on a real place you know?

theodora1
Photo from a summer trip Bishop took to the New Jersey shore

I grew up spending a week every summer at the Jersey shore. Those weeks are among my favorite memories growing up, (although I daresay my parents populated my sister’s and my childhoods with a wealth of experiences; we were deeply lucky kids). But there is something unique about making an annual pilgrimage to the ocean, and something perhaps even more unique about returning to the same beach town. I am continuously fascinated by memory, and the lens through which memories are perceived, the greater distance one has from them. Mining her past to gauge the present is one of Eva’s biggest fallbacks. I think her rehashing of these stories as a means to shape her present treads a fine line; it can be damaging to tether oneself to one’s past.

Eva is not impervious to noticing the particulars of Ship Bottom, the tourist-centric beach town she’s lived in all her life: “somewhere there must exist an ordinance that every house and shopfront boast an ebullient shade of sherbet and some form of nautical lawn ornament,” she at one point comments. As a writer, I am fascinated by the aesthetic a particular place chooses to embrace, and especially intrigued by how this appeal evolves or remains the same. What does a place, and a vacation-spot, at that, choose to hold onto or release? What does this negotiation say about a particular place?

Tell me about Eva. What about her do you want readers to connect with?

What kept me wanting to write about Eva and from her perspective is how hard she triestheodora4 to be a good person. It’s wildly wonderful but also difficult being a person, not to mention a good one, and as a writer and a reader alike, I’m drawn toward characters who also find even their best intentions can often feel like daunting endeavors. The complexity of the relationship we have with ourselves and the greater world around us is one I hope readers might be able to identify with, and see mirrored in Eva. Eva’s negotiating the loss of a friend whose death she doesn’t understand, and her negotiation of the thorny turns her relationship with her mother assumes, are obstacles I hoped to convey in ways readers might relate to.

Eva and Sebastian’s relationship is an interesting take on first love. How did you approach writing that? What made you want to write it the way you did?

Eva’s depiction of her mother in the beginning of the second chapter of the novella was the first line of On the Rocks when it was a short story: “…to cope with Sebastian’s death, a tragedy that continues to teach me how differently humans grieved, my mother cut off her hair and let it go gray.” I don’t think I even knew who Sebastian was when I wrote that – what his relationship to Eva’s mother or Eva herself was, for that matter – but unearthing that relationship was the question I wanted to chase. Although I oftentimes write about sibling relationships, I was less interested in focusing on that type of relationship for this story. I knew I wanted Sebastian to be outside of the narrator’s family, as well as physically absent, but deeply present in the psyche of the narrative. What kind of person would enthrall Eva as well as her mother? Why would Eva feel so deeply attached to someone? First encounters, I believe, get under our skin at a very young age. The way the first two-thirds of the novella is structured is primarily associative: how the present moment collapses within the narrator’s memory and associations with the past is its organizing principle. This structure collapses in the final third of the novella, but I won’t spoil it from there. It made sense to me that the narrator would navigate her present moment by rehashing the past, the better to understand who she is. Her first love is a deeply felt experience by which she does this.

theodora3What led you to submit it for the Clay Reynolds Prize?

I am fascinated and excited by the novella as a form. I think writers can learn a lot about pacing, structure, and narrative “pitch” by studying novellas, and that readers can benefit from reading novellas because their length falls in that sweet space between the short story and the novel. They’re long enough to feel as though you’ve gotten to know deeply the characters and their worlds, but often short enough to finish in one or two sittings. I submitted On the Rocks to the Clay Reynolds Prize because the prize, and Texas Review Press, champions the novella. There are few writing competitions that specifically reward the form, but I am delighted by and eager to read the work that comes out of the ones that do.

How did it feel to learn your novella was named a runner up and had been accepted for publication?

Thrilled and deeply honored. I wrote On the Rocks in tandem with a novel that became my MFA thesis. What distinguished Eva’s story from the other larger project I was working on at the time is that I thought of it as my “humor kick.” Where the novel I wrote also hinges on a grieving, first-person narrator, the protagonist’s voice in that novel is unreliable, and the things that happen to her are comparatively horrific: I learned a lot (about writing and about the project) by writing from her point-of-view, but working my way through Eva’s voice in On the Rocks allowed me to be funny (or try to be!) in a way I wasn’t at all employing in my other manuscript. On the Rocks stemmed from Eva’s voice, and it was Eva’s voice – her sense of humor and bristling self-awareness – that became a delicious comfort to me. To learn that the editors at Texas Review Press and that the contest’s judge, Clay Reynolds, valued my work, was deeply meaningful to me.

What’s next for you?

I write poetry as well as fiction, and find working in one genre complements my work in the other. Right now, I’m writing poems and short stories, and just beginning to get my hands into a new novel. I also hope to imbue these projects with a taste of my new surroundings: I moved to Houston, Texas, shortly before Hurricane Harvey, and have fallen in love with the city.

Thank you, Theodora, for your time and for your lovely photographs!

Be sure to check out On the Rocks, which is on sale today!

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