Annie Bilancini writes and teaches in Marquette, MI. Her work has appeared most recently in journals such as The Collagist, Knee-Jerk, and SmokeLong Quarterly. She is an associate editor for Passages North, helps co-edit the hybrid prose journal Threadcount, and serves as an associate editor for content at SmokeLong Quarterly.
Her story, "The House of Schiaparelli," appeared In Issue Sixty-Nine of The Collagist.
Here, Annie Bilancini talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about research, hybridity, and lipstick.
Please tell us about the origins of your short story, “The House of Schiaparelli.” What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?
This is maybe going to sound really silly, but this story actually exists because of a misguided Sephora lipstick purchase. Or maybe that’s an awesome reason to have written a story. Regardless, this story is a result of a bright pink lipstick from Nars called “Schiap.” I bought it on a whim because it was such a ridiculously bright pink, but I had no idea what the name meant. After a quick Google search, I discovered the lipstick was an homage to Elsa Schiaparelli, and I was instantly smitten with her and her work.
Your writing about Elsa Schiaparelli and other historical figures (such as your “Lady Tyger” story published in Smokelong Quarterly) must require a lot of research. What is the relationship between fact and fiction in your writing about real people? What are the limits of loyalty to the subject’s actual biography, and to what extent are you comfortable with inserting your own invention into their remembered lives?
The research portion of the writing process has been a blast, and working with Elsa’s story was particularly instructive because she was an artist and had a lot to say about the creative process. It helped me think about not only what to include in the piece, but how to include it. I wanted each section of the piece to represent both a moment in her life, as well as a design she had created, so crafting the prose was heavily inspired by her designs. This actually resulted in much denser prose. The sentences were more complex, more finely tuned. I felt like I was trying to write the designs. So I suppose the “facts” showed up on the page in unexpected ways. As far as the limits of loyalty, I knew I wanted these pieces to be flash, and the kind of flash I enjoy writing often focuses on excavating moments, which nearly always results in some kind of invention on my part. The facts were there, but in order to make a piece of art, it was necessary to wrap those facts in sounds and images that very well never may have existed. Knowing what I know about Schiap’s allegiance to reality (or lack thereof), I felt a lot more comfortable taking those imaginative leaps on the page to represent her life and art.
The sections of this story seem to be arranged mostly in chronological order, beginning in childhood and ending after the war. The one notable exception that I can find is that the lines, “She is buried in this color. It is not her design,” do not come at the very end but in the penultimate section. How did you decide that the story should not end here but with another memory from her childhood? What was your goal for this story’s ending?
That was actually based on a workshop suggestion from my instructor (the amazingly fabulous Jen Howard). She felt the piece needed to build momentum toward something beyond chronology. The piece isn’t meant to be strictly biographical, so its organization couldn’t and shouldn’t be time-based. Moving toward that final image, the seeds in her mouth (which isn’t something I made up; she actually did that!) and that anticipation, that was such a wonderfully loaded moment and such a compelling image. Ending the story with what is essentially a meaningful act of creation felt right for someone whose own creations were so important to the culture and history of fashion at the time. Jen’s feedback was integral to bringing that moment about.
Your bio says that you also co-edit Threadcount, “a journal of hybrid prose.” What is your definition of a “hybrid” in literature? Why is it important to you as an editor that the pieces you publish not be easily classified within one genre or another?
For me, the definition of hybrid prose will always be in flux. The nature of what “is and isn’t” in literature is always changing, and I think that’s what fascinated and frustrated us as the journal began to take shape. So at Threadcount, our goal is to publish prose that resists easy categorization. That’s not to say a reader couldn’t consider some of the works we publish a poem or a piece of flash fiction because many of the works we publish still have the shape or the curve of familiar forms. It just may be that some basic rules are broken; a short story’s narrative structure is abandoned in service of singular, surprising image (like this, for example). I think we just wanted to create room at the table for all the writing out there that isn’t quite this or that, but this other thing that takes up space on the page in an unexpected way. You know, prose that walks like a duck and talks like a duck, but is actually your uncle stricken with a mind-controlling fungus. That old chestnut.
What writing projects are you working on now?
Right now I’m working on a flash series that kind of riffs on the writing of Marie de France (a medieval poet). Medieval literature is great fun because it’s a lot of “And then this happened! And then this happened!” All those rules you’re taught about narrative and character are completely dismantled. It’s deus ex machina out the wazoo, but in the best possible way. For example, in one story, two weasels show up out of nowhere at the end and save all the principle characters from harm and everyone lives happily ever after. The weasels don’t really seem to symbolize anything. They just show up, resolve all the issues that the story has built up, and then scamper back into the forest. And the lesson, of course, is that weasels solve everything.
What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?
I just finished Fjords Vol. 1 by Zachary Schomburg, and I loved it a lot. I’m also reading The Ant King: And Other Stories by Benjamin Rosenbaum, and it’s teaching me a lot about how to have fun with writing.