IN BALL, her new collection of short stories, Tara Ison delights in probing the sinister psyches of impeccably crafted characters, people whose gifts involve fashioning surprisingly twisted existences. These include an ultra-competitive woman who begrudgingly helps her dying best friend go shopping for a wig, an unfaithful wife who self-harms to win back her husband’s affection, and an estranged niece who waits out her uncle’s death, the same uncle she falsely accused of inappropriately touching her as a child. Ison’s women seem to come most alive in their darkest moments. They are complex and depraved, masquerading normalcy. But, Ison forces her reader to ask, aren’t we all?
Indeed, to read Ison’s stories is to enter a world that is both terrifying and recognizable. They reach toward the cobwebbed corners of our darkest fantasies. What would happen if we let our most deviant impulses, those split-second feral desires, take over? These are stories that demand to be read all at once, and then maybe once again, for the fierce pleasure they provide.
Ison is the author of novels The List, Rockaway, and A Child Out of Alcatraz. She also co-wrote the 1991 cult film Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. She is currently Associate Professor of Fiction at Arizona State University.
I met her for tea at a café in Los Angeles, the city where all but one of the stories in Ball are set. She spoke openly about matters personal and private, exuding pure ease and charm. I sometimes had to remind myself that this same woman was responsible for such demented tales.
ELLIE DUKE: You have described your relationship to Los Angeles as “ambivalent.” I was surprised to hear that, as Ball, in many ways, feels like a tribute to the city.
TARA ISON: I grew up during the fading end of the myth of Hollywood glamour. I got a taste of that growing up, but those days are gone. I think I still hold some of that in my head and in my heart, but when I’m here, I’m hit by the reality of an Urban Outfitters and a Chipotle on every corner. Los Angeles is more generic now. As with everything, it’s louder and more crowded. I forget a lot of those things because I’m still nostalgic for the Los Angeles of my childhood. And I don’t live here anymore either, so I think I do get to see it all through rose-tinted glasses.
So yes, it’s ambivalence. I love coming back here, and yet I don’t live here. I love it, but I do find I start to get a little antsy, because I’m sleeping on an air mattress in my parents’ house and my stuff is still in Arizona, and I’m always trying to cram in as many people as I can and visit my favorite places. It feels a little frenetic, but I still love it. This still feels like home.
Many of the characters in Ball are ambivalent at best, wanting so desperately to feel something, but unable to actually get close or experience intimacy with someone else. I think that ambivalence, that desperation, is unique to Los Angeles. The book feels very specific to LA. I reference specific places a lot, but I think even the vibe of it feels very Los Angeles. The emotional glitz, the emotional decay.
I love the character of Josh, from “Cactus,” who is so obsessed with escaping his city life. I feel like I’ve met him before.
What’s funny about that is I can’t relate to Josh at all. His desire to get out of the city and into the wilderness? That’s so not me. I’m not an outdoors person, I don’t like being outside, I don’t like the desert. It’s just not my landscape. “Cactus” was written from the perspective of Holly, who can’t understand why Josh wants that open space. I think she says, “I’ll never understand why anybody would want to feel so insignificant.” But that’s what draws him to it; he feels small in the landscape, in a way that he can’t when he’s in the city.
This line in “Cactus” struck me: “You expect a rose to be beautiful. It’s more interesting to find all that beauty in a cactus.” That distinction drives these stories, in some ways. Do you identify with Holly’s interest in the metaphorical cactus, rather than the rose?
You know, roses are beautiful, but I’d never be interested in writing about a rose, the way I’d be interested in writing about a cactus. Just like I wouldn’t be interested in writing about a person who is a perfect, upstanding moral citizen. Because who is that person? Not me, not anyone I know. So that’s where the story “Cactus” began, with the idea of a person who is an emotional cactus, and thinking about how to externalize that.
The stories in Ball are full of references and research, ranging from the synthetic hair types in “Wig” to koi facts in “Fish.” What role does research play in your stories, and at what stage does that research begin?
I love research, because it’s an excuse not to write! To me, the research and the writing have a symbiotic relationship. I often return to research sources as I write; I’m constantly going back and forth. Whenever I’m stuck in a story, the best thing I’ve found is to open one of my research books, or reread an article, and it’s always an entryway back into the character.
I also love the language that research offers. The language of science, medicine, technology, history, biography. It’s full of words I wouldn’t normally incorporate, because they’re not in my frame of reference. But they’re gorgeous words. There are so many metaphorical jewels in scientific language. So it opens me up as a writer to be able to include textured language I wouldn’t normally have access to.
Research offers metaphorical and figurative opportunities, as well. And ultimately it helps me with character, because I can look at the world through the perspective of a character with an entirely different knowledge bank than mine. It helps me remember that these characters view the world through a different lens than I do.
The trick is that once you’ve done a lot of research, you want to show it off. So with Josh [from “Cactus”], I took the easy route of making him a teacher. When you have a character that knows a lot about something and you want to share that, it’s easy to make them a character that likes to pontificate. It was a way for me to cram in everything I learned, but I think it could have been a bit subtler.
All the stories in Ball have female narrators. These women spend a lot of time comparing themselves to other female characters. Why do you think women are in constant competition with each other?
I think we’re culturally conditioned to compete with each other as women, to compare, to rank ourselves against each other in every way — our bodies, our hair, our weight, our achievements as professionals, as mothers, as friends, as sisters, as daughters. I think it comes from an evolutionary place, the competition for a mate, for food, for power, where women feel pitted against each other.
What I’m finding as I’ve gotten older is I’m more in competition with my younger self. I’ve become less concerned with ranking myself against other women, and I’d like to think I have learned to appreciate other people’s individual accomplishments and achievements in a less neurotic way. I’m more comfortable celebrating the other women in my life for who they are, and appreciating who I am.
But at the same time, I am very aware of comparing myself with my younger self. A lot of that has to do with physicality, but there’s also the sense of reviewing my life as a writer. I look back at my earlier work and admire the fearlessness that I had, and I don’t want to lose that. I don’t want to have accumulated a greater self-consciousness, but instead to be working toward a greater freedom from self-consciousness as a writer.
This has been on my mind a lot, particularly in reference to Ball, because the stories range from pieces I wrote several years ago to stories I wrote in the last year. It’s hard not to compare — like I might compare the shape of my body — recent stories to earlier ones. In some ways it’s good, to want to hold on to the fearlessness of youth, but at the same time I want to appreciate where I am now as a writer, and to look forward.
At the end of “Wig,” the narrator tells her friend she loves her, and then goes into the bathroom and plucks the hairs out of her wig, destroying the thing that returned her friend’s sexual power and confidence. What drives that? Is there love between these friends, despite the intense competition?
The narrator of “Wig,” like the narrators of so many of these stories, is profoundly messed up. There is a 20-year history of competition between these two women. The friend is oblivious; her supposed envy is more of an admiration. But the narrator feels a sense of competition with her friend on every level: athletically, sexually, and romantically. She sees her friend as being the epitome of female success and attractiveness and feels herself to be a failure. So the friendship, for the narrator, really exists as an omnipresent grading scale. She wouldn’t know how to define herself were it not in ranking herself against the achievements of her friend.
She loves her friend to the best of her ability, but I don’t think the narrator is capable of actual love. Her affair with her friend’s husband is an opportunity for her to feel victorious, it gives her a feeling of such power. So when she realizes that her friend actually knows about the affair, and dismisses her as a sexual threat, the power that she clung to through the affair is destroyed. And her impulse, because she is so profoundly messed up, is to destroy something back. She seeks to destroy the thing that she credits with giving the dying friend a degree of sexual desirability. It makes no sense — how is she going to explain the bald wig? But she gives in to that darkest impulse, the impulse to act out, to make her feel powerful and in control.
Many of your characters can be reduced to a single quality — the narrator in “Cactus” is an emotional cactus, the narrator in “Wig” wants to win — is that a tool you use when creating a character?
I don’t know that I do it consciously. I do like to push the characters toward their darkest impulses, their darkest urges and emotions, their least noble, their least likable. I take the kinds of emotions that flutter inside of all of us just a little bit, those ugly emotions that well-adjusted people recognize and properly put aside, and then push the characters one step further into actually taking action on those impulses.
The main character from “Musical Chairs” seems to be the closest to one of those so-called “well adjusted” people who pushes the ugly emotions to the side.
Yes, in a way she’s one of the least extreme characters. There are a few stories in the collection in which I let those disturbing impulses bubble up and fester, and then I pull back, and the character stays in a space of repression and denial. “Musical Chairs” is an example of that, where she has a hatred of the man’s fiancée, but she’s not going to do anything about it. She remains in a sort of repressed seethe about it. She is maybe one of the more comfortable narrators for a reader, because I don’t push her quite as far. In a way that makes the story a little more realistic, a little more restrained.
Chas, her best friend and love interest, says to her, “You’re going to do fucking amazing things, all on your own.” Is that a subtle dig at this independent successful woman?
Exactly — it’s such a double-edged sword. It’s a compliment, and it’s a sign of his admiration for her as a human being, and at the same time in confirms this feeling that she has that she’s doomed to be alone.
Do you think men relate differently to your work than women do?
I’m not sure. I think men react to the sex stuff differently, perhaps. Or at least, over the years, as I’ve been in relationships with men, there always comes a time when they read one of my stories, and it’s a pretty scary moment. The sex in my stories is intense; it can be violent, brutal, quite dark. And it’s always interesting to see how someone reacts. Sometimes it freaks them out, sometimes it turns them on, sometimes it makes them wonder about or question my own sexuality. So that’s always a nerve-wracking experience.
Do you think they’re afraid of becoming a character?
Well, anyone who knows a writer knows that’s always liable to happen.
The main character in “Bakery Girl,” a young girl, fantasizes about her interaction with an older man in a very sweet, innocent way. She fantasizes about driving in his car, about him telling her his secrets. But the reality of their sexual encounter is so intense, and so non-intimate. Was that tension between the imagined and the reality of sexual encounters a driving force of this story?
I do think the core of that story is that abrupt confrontation when the reality of sexuality smashes into the fantasy of romance. The story is sort of heartbreaking, and at the same time, it is one of the most sexually explicit in the collection.
My own experience as a teenager was nothing like that at all, and I’m very grateful for that. It actually might be the depiction of some later experiences, where I was still clinging to the hope for a certain kind of connection with somebody. But it wasn’t the disillusionment of a 14-year-old experiencing sexuality for the first time. To me, it’s more heartbreaking that it’s happening to a girl so young, who isn’t ready to explore her sexuality in that way, and she unfortunately falls into circumstances that make her first sexual experience very intense.
And yet, at least I hope, it’s still kind of hot. Nerve.com originally solicited the story; they asked me for a sex story, so I wrote with the intention of writing something pretty dirty and sexy, very explicit. But then all of this other stuff found its way into the story. I don’t shy away from sexually explicit material, as a reader or a writer. But when a story is just about the mechanics, it’s like a cheeseburger: you don’t think about it after. But when it’s got the explicit mechanics, but it’s ultimately about something else, then the story has more resonance.
I want to ask about the story “Ball” and the topic of domestication. It always strikes me as funny, or perhaps a little perverse, that we bring animals into our homes and think they’re “smart” because they sit and stay. What need do you think domestication serves for humans, or for this narrator in particular?
You know, dogs are pack animals, meaning they desire interaction with other animals, and I include humans in that. So they do want to be around us. I think the domestication of animals has to do with a human desire to bring that feral energy into our lives, into our own domestic spaces.
But we pretend they’re not wild animals, on some level. I remember a moment with my dog, who was just the sweetest, calmest dog in the world. One day in the dog park, another dog did something she didn’t like, and she went wild. I saw something in her I had never seen before, in her eyes. And though I never saw that side of her again, I never saw her the same way, after I had seen her wild side. It was just a reminder that she was, essentially, a wild animal. It was a crazy experience.
I think in some ways, this entire collection is about domestication. Like in “Ball,” the dog is actually more domesticated than the woman she belongs to. It wasn’t an intentional thread, but it is a theme among many of these characters that they are pushed to their breaking points, to the moment when they go wild.
Do you ever think about writing another movie?
No, I think that’s behind me. I can appreciate everything I learned from writing movies. I have a much better appreciation of structure, of plot, concision. But screenplays just aren’t my art form — I am a lover of prose, and screenplays, when it comes down to it, are a visual medium.
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? What do you think your 12-year-old self would say about where you are now?
There is a chapter in my book [Reeling Through Life, Soft Skull Press, 2015] called “How to Be a Writer: The Beach House, The Bathrobe, and Saving the World” in which I talk about this. I remember seeing a movie called Julia when I was around that age, 12, about Lillian Hellman. She is so beautiful, and she lives in a beach house, and Dashiell Hammett is in love with her and he’s totally gorgeous, and when she’s tired of writing she goes to Paris. But the only time they show her actually writing, it’s a six-second clip of her at a typewriter, with a scotch and a cigarette. So they show her being “a writer” but they don’t actually show the writing part. So from that, I knew I wanted to be “a writer.” But I didn’t even really know what that looked like. I saw many more movies in my teens about writers, and they all reinforced this idea of being a writer, but no one talked about how hard it is to actually write.
So I studied creative writing at UCLA, but I was terrified the whole time. I took a few stabs at sketching out stories, but nothing I really cared about. Because you know, if you don’t care about something, and then you don’t do a good job, then you can’t get hurt. But if you write about something that is deep and personal to you, that you’ve worked really hard on, it can be terrifying and heartbreaking to put it out there. So I didn’t do that, and it really was a waste of time. A shame. If a professor had sat me down in college and said, “listen kid, you don’t got it. Try something else,” they would have been justified in doing so.
Have you ever had that conversation with a student?
Oh God, no. I would never, especially after having been who I was in college. Who am I to say whether a student is a good writer or not? I would never tell someone to stop writing, ever.
Do you have any writing rituals?
Avoidance! My toilet is never as clean as when I have to write something. I will drive to the grocery store just to buy an apple. I will do anything to keep myself out of the writing chair. The best thing to get me writing again is a deadline, because if I don’t meet a deadline, I’m letting someone else down, so it’s not about me anymore.
You’ve said you don’t consider yourself an experimental writer, but there are two stories, “The Knitting Story” and “Multiple Choice” that are fairly experimental, compared to the rest of the collection. Can you talk about your process writing those?
Those are actually the two most recent stories. I guess I’m become more interested in exploring alternative forms. It’s always something I’ve always steered clear of, because of the concern that I didn’t have the skill to elevate it beyond the gimmick of the alternative form. There are some people who write experimental fiction so masterfully, but I often find that it feels like a gimmick. I find it distracting, and I find the story to be about the form, instead of about a character. I lose what I love most both in writing stories and reading stories, which is the character and their journey.
What I was trying to do with both those stories was make the experience of the character determine the form. In “Multiple Choice,” the form came from the characters sense of herself as one of multiple choices for this man. She felt interchangeable, like one of a list of options that this man came upon. She felt like an arbitrary selection, an option on a list rather than a living, breathing, human woman. But it takes the whole story for her to realize that, because she is searching for some kind of distinction in the world. She’s so average, and she longs to be above average in some away, which is what this man gives her. The irony is that she is just another dead woman to him.
For “The Knitting Story,” I wanted to echo the meditative rhythm of knitting itself. They’ve done studies that show brain waves move in a similar pattern during knitting and during some forms of mediation. So I wanted a rhythmic, patterned structure of language, much like the rhythmic, patterned structure of knitting.
In “The Knitting Story,” much like “Multiple Choice,” the narrator is craving some kind of distinction. She uses knitting to create a place for herself in the world and get the acknowledgement she craves. The form of the knitting story comes from a character who is trying to create a pattern for herself, who is trying to knit her way into existence.
It’s so bittersweet when she gets to the end and realizes that all she’s done in her life is knit.
You know, sometimes I worry that I’ll get to the end of my life and realize all I did was knit and read and watch cable television shows and throw a ball to my dog. Oh yeah, and write a few stories. On the one hand, that’s a rather sad life, but on the other hand, that’s a dream existence. It’s a perfectly glorious way to have spent a life.