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"Shimmering Like a Living Thing": An Interview with Ösel Jessica Plante

Ösel Jessica Plante's poetry, and flash fiction, has appeared or is forthcoming in the Best Small Fictions 2016 anthology, The Adroit Journal, Puerto del Sol, South Dakota Review, Mid-American Review, Mississippi Review, New Ohio Review, Rattle, Zone 3, and others. She was runner-up in Meridian's 2017 Poetry Contest, a finalist for the Passages North 2017 Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize, and finalist for the 2016 Mississippi Review Prize. She earned an MFA from UNC-Greensboro and is pursuing a PhD in Poetry at Florida State University. She is associate Poetry Editor of Connotation Press: An Online Artifact. More of her work can be found at oseljessicaplante.com.

Her story, "The Lick," appeared in Issue Seventy-Seven of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about office jobs, single-minded characters, and tongues.

What inspired this story?              

I can’t remember what inspired the story. I know I had been reading a lot of Gary Lutz at the time. I was also working a full-time office job. My boss was a big reader. He would sometimes give me books to take home as though grooming me to his taste. In fact, the day he’d interviewed me for the job he’d walked with me out of the conference room and into the parking lot to my car as we discussed the latest George Saunders novel, Tenth of December, which had come out the previous month. I think I got the job partly because we talked about books. The job, however, turned out to not be a great fit. I was bored within a matter of weeks and would fill empty hours by writing or with long walks through nearby neighborhoods at lunchtime. I was not a terrible employee, but I was not great either. Something about the sensory deprivation that comes from staring at pale green walls and dropped ceilings, I’m sure, led me to fantasize about what my senses were missing. That and Lutz’s keen and odd styling loosened something in me. I wrote this pretty much all at once, which is how I write most of my flash fiction. I generally write a lot of crap, and then, finally, something comes out shimmering like a living thing.

You present us with a strange character, one who licks fruit in the grocery store and tastes snakes. Yet, the beauty and joy in her observations helped me to relate to her: “Each divot in its rippling leather tasted of a chemical anger, a disappearing act, the reflection of our own fear. I could almost calculate with my taste buds how soon its next molting would occur.” How do, as a writer, engage with a character who on the outside seems difficult to relate to?

Hmm, this is a tricky question for me because I don’t often think about a characters’ relatability when I’m writing. I think I’m more tuned to whether they feel honest. Frankly, I’m not sure I would want to be this person’s friend, or even acquaintance. She seems more than slightly off balance and like social situations wouldn’t be her forte. But, what I do like about her is that she is single-minded; she is on a mission. I wanted to see how far I could push my descriptions, to see how absurd I could get but still have it seem grounded in the context of her obsessive compulsion to lick. I did waiver about whether to make the character a ‘he’ or a ‘she’ or a ‘they’. But then decided her behavior was contrary to what we expect of women, so I made her female to push against the idea that women should be living pretty, manicured existences.

I also think the tongue is a really strange part of the body, highly sensual, not inner or outer but both. The tongue doesn’t just taste other things, it’s also constantly tasting itself and the body where it lives. Perhaps the ability to have a heightened sense of taste could be related to a heightened sense of self-awareness, but I doubt that’s true. I should have had her sample other creatures’ tongues. You can buy cow tongues in grocery stores, you know. 

The speaker in this story understands her world by tasting it. What’s your preferred way of exploring and understanding your world?

Definitely staring into space while alone, or lying next to someone I may or may not be in the habit of licking.

What is the last book you read and loved?

The first book that pops to mind is Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’m also reading book one of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard right now, which is fabulous.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m finishing my first manuscript of poems. It’s called Waveland. I’m also beginning to work on a novella in verse called Radio Brother, about a mother who tunes her son like a radio because she believes she is receiving messages from god. I have future plans to write a book of non-fiction, a memoir, about the time I died.

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