Of Rebecca Curtis, Time Out New York has said, "This is a writer who astonishes with her versatility of styles and techniques," calling her stories, "Wise and often emotionally devastating" The Village Voice declared that her debut short story collection Twenty Grand, "Showcases the talent of one of the more promising short story writers in America today." And a boy who Rebecca had a crush on at 18 said, after being poisoned by her, " This is the worst thing that's ever happened to me." Let's see if Curtis, who certainly is as talented and witty as the reviewers say, can talk her way out of that one!
Have you had any encounters with shysters like in your story Alpine Slide, burned down a house like in Hungry Self, or witnessed the death of another under similar circumstances to The Witches?
No. I wish I had though. That would be hot.
In your story Monsters, frightening beasts exist and a family must choose which member to offer up for them to eat. How do you feel your own family would handle this situation?
My family argues a lot and the tide really shifts. So I think it would be whoever was in the doghouse the most recently. Like, whoever accidentally threw away the mail that seemed like credit card offers but was really bills, or whoever ate the ice cream and put back an empty container, or you know, whoever forgot to clean their hair from the shower drain. It could be anyone.
What was the most common reader reaction to this piece?
Most people seemed to find this story stupid. I know several reviewers felt the collection would be better without it. Maybe they're right. A few people like it. One guy came up to me after a reading and thanked me for writing it. I think he felt like in his family he'd be the one to be eaten.
I liked it. I thought that the pieces that were less grounded in reality brought an enjoyable sense of variety to the collection. Do you often find yourself delving into the absurd?
Well, thanks. I do write absurd things a lot, often in my notebook, and most of them are really silly and never see the light to day. But that's a good thing because they really are silly.
What sort of silly things do you write?
Oh, they're too silly.
Do you ever feel torn between writing silly things and writing serious things?
No more than I feel torn between deciding on whether to have oatmeal or toast and eggs for breakfast. And I do feel torn about that, all the time, because I like them both so much! Oatmeal is sweet and satisfies that carbohydrate craving, but toast and eggs are salty and buttery. In the end I just console myself that if I have toast and eggs for breakfast today, I can choose oatmeal for breakfast tomorrow. Or, you know, if I really get desperate, oatmeal for dinner.
When did you begin to write?
I wrote my first sentence at age 4! But I didn't publish my first book until last month.
What was the worst letter of rejection that you've ever gotten?
Once I sent a story to Harper's through their slush pile. The story was about a girl who, one day when her family is out of the house on some errand, licks the living room rug. She's just curious about what it would taste like. For some reason--the fact that her whole family has walked on it--she gets addicted to licking the rug, that one and the other one in the house, and rugs in general, also in other people's houses. She tries to keep the habit secret, because she knows it's gross, and she's ashamed, but one day her brother sees her doing it... and things go badly for her from there, she gets sent to an institution for other girls who also lick rugs. It is, as you can see, absurd. Anyway, Harper's didn't like the story, and the rejection letter said: Dear Rebecca Curtis: Thank you for your insight on licking rugs!
At first, did your writing lean toward the more serious or the silly?
My first published stories were fairly short, and silly. When I say short, I mean from 200 to 3,000 words. One was the story I mentioned about the girl who becomes addicted to licking rugs--that was a pretty developed tale of maybe 3000 words. Some shorts about a man who wishes that one day a man would be president because in the world of the story America has only ever had female presidents.--a longer one about a man whose girlfriend goes with him when he needs to get an abortion, and he's upset because the nurses at the clinic are a bit contemptuous of his carelessness and irresponsibility. I'm sure these stories would be found annoyingly & blatantly political by many people! But I had fun writing them. One was about a young lawyer whose wife gets picked to bear the Messiah and a hot Arab guy comes down to impregnate her, but the lawyer can't protest, or even watch, because it's God. So I guess the answer is 'silly.'
Have you had any personal experience similar to your story Twenty Grand, where you lose something or someone only to discover their true value afterward?
No. Someone? You mean like, break up with someone and then realize it was true love? Are you projecting an interesting personal experience onto the story...? Sounds intriguing.
No, I meant more of along the lines of, "You don't know what you've got until it's gone," which could apply to a valuable coin or an elderly relative whose kindness you never reciprocated. Have you had an experience along those lines?
Once my mom had a set of "tricky dogs" that were magnetized and came inside a special matchbox. The dogs were tiny, one black, one white, terriers, and they stuck to each other's feet, and I liked to play with them. The matchbox they "rested inside" when I wasn't playing with them was a bit fragile. Also these "tricky dogs" were my mother's, not mine, and they lived inside her high bureau, the top part where she kept special things like jewelry and scarves. Well one day I was lying on her bed playing with the "tricky dogs" and I felt antsy and busted the matchbox they lived in. I just pressed it too hard and it smooshed flat. Then my mother ran in the room, saw the smooshed match box, and started crying and screaming that the tricky dogs were antique, and that now they were ruined. Being about five years old, I didn't quite understand and protested that the dogs were just fine, and she explained to me, still angry and sobbing, that in order to be of value, the dogs had to come with an original un-smooshed matchbox, etc. I think my reaction, interior at least, was to conclude that the world, my mother, and the notion of antiques were all dumb, because it seemed senseless to me to care so much about whether a match box was flattened or not. But then, at five I was a jerk, and lots of things seemed illogical, including both my parents.
Do you have any other examples of being a jerk at young age?
Sure. Once I poisoned a guy I had a crush on, because he didn't like me. I wasn't that young though. I was eighteen.
Poisoning! How'd you manage that?
Well, I can't give away my methods. But, he was very sick for one day exactly--so sick he couldn't leave his room. After that he was OK again. I think he wasn't sure what had happened at first--he thought he just ate something bad. When he found out he'd been poisoned--which he found out only because I, and my friends who'd helped me, started giggling in the halls--and then my friends felt guilty and ran to him and confessed--and then of course, having been implicated, I also had to confess--he was very mad. So angry, in fact, he threatened to call the police. Also to sue me. When he threatened to sue me, I was upset. I had no money! His eyes were very big and brown, and he seemed very confused--in addition to angry--about the whole thing. He was a really nice guy. Co-captain, maybe, of our university's water polo team, and an excellent and avid tennis player, windsurfer, sailor, para-sailor, golfer, you get the picture. He was pre-med. He wanted to help people. Whenever he'd had a summer job, in his life, it was always volunteering--helping autistic kids play games, for example, at a special camp for them, unpaid, or volunteering to help poor people by administering shots to them, and other things like that. When I went in to apologize to him, after he told he might call the police, he said, "This is the worst thing that ever happened to me." I said, "Really?" And he stared at me and said, "Yes. Absolutely. This is the worst thing that's ever happened to me." It was then that I began to giggle uncontrollably.
How do you feel about it now?
I got an issue of my university's alumni magazine and his picture was in the back. He was still handsome, although his hair had thinned, and he'd gained weight, and had pudge-face. He looked happy. He's a doctor, and involved in several outreach organizations, mostly religiously affiliated. And he's married. I think the picture was announcing all these things. When I saw the picture, I was glad that he was happy. And I thought: Could I poison him again? I was full of nostalgia.
Tell me about your novel in progress.
It's a historical novel about an auntie's escape from the Armenian genocide. She was a young wife, with a newborn baby. Her husband got sent to work on the railroads (then killed) with the other Armenian men. A lot of Armenian women were just throwing themselves down wells, rather than dishonor themselves by fraternizing with the enemy. But this auntie, she went for it and married a Turkish man, just to save her life. And her baby's, of course. She became the 5th woman in his harem, and rode with across Turkey on horseback. The woman was my grandmother's best friend, and semi-raised my mother, who's Armenian. She wrote a 5,000 word, very journalistic account of her experience. My mother gave me the document when I was 14. She thought I might want to write about it someday. Right now I'm doing background research, and interviewing the woman's daughters.
You've traveled to Europe to research your book, taught at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas, and grew up in New Hampshire. How do these many locals compare to New York?
The rent is cheaper.
Could you share an "only in New York" moment?
This one is complicated, but: my roommate is dating a guy, who went to school (Yale) with my friend...and who it turns out was childhood best friends with her ex's best friend... because they shared a summer house in Connecticut together. Meanwhile, they're all novelists.
Given the opportunity, what would you change about New York?
The rent would be cheaper.
Under what circumstances would you leave New York?
Osama gets nukes.
What do you consider a perfect day of recreation in New York?
Last Sunday I walked up to Prospect Park with my sister and her fiancé. We jogged the 3 and 1/2 mile loop around it, then stopped in a couple used bookstores and one swanky food co-op on our way back home. We drank some creamy ice-coffees, then walked to a barbecue in Carrol gardens in the backyard of a nice hedge-fund manager's brownstone. He claimed not to read books (the bookshelves were empty, and one room upstairs was full of boxed tomes) but when I quizzed him later, he knew all the answers. After the barbecue, a bunch of us went to the Brooklyn Inn and drank cokes.
You can see Rebecca read on September 12th, 2007 at 8 PM at the Happy Ending Lounge 302 Broome Street, btwn Forsyth & Eldridge Streets New York, NY
Photo by Andrea Artz