Debra Busman recently published her first full-length novel, like a woman (Dzanc, 2015). In addition to being an author of fiction and creative nonfiction, she is a codirector of the Creative Writing and Social Action program at CSU Monterey Bay and coeditor of Fire and Ink: An Anthology of Social Action Writing. Hawthorne/Dzanc intern Alexis Woodcock got the chance recently to ask Debra a few questions about her work.
Alexis Woodcock: This novel’s narrative shifts are really interesting. Can you tell us a little about what went into crafting the voice changes, POV shifts, and occasional page of poetry? What made you decide to put it all together the way you did?
Debra Busman: I think one of my strengths as a writer is that I absolutely trust my characters. So there were several times when my authorial intent would be overruled by what the characters believed to be best. For example, in the title piece "like a woman," I had initially set forth with third-person narration but quickly got pushed out of the way by the foul-mouthed, attitudinal teenage protagonist Taylor, who felt like she could tell the story better in her own voice. And of course, she was right. That piece would not have been as powerful if I had tried to write "about" her experience, using mere dialogue to capture her voice, rather than allow her to completely hijack the story and tell it directly. Since so much of the book is about honoring marginalized voice and girl/child empowerment and agency, it felt wise to let her just run with it. Another piece that kind of got away from me was "The First Thing You Need to Know," which again started out as traditional third-person narration. But as the story unfolded, I realized it had shifted into second person and that the narrative voice was young, almost as if the child was giving other young folks a kind of guidebook to kid survival. This child-to-child narration created a tender poignancy and power that took the story deeper than my original vision.
The poetic pieces were similar. Often I'd sit down with full intent to write a story and yet what emerged were these curious prose poems which captured a tone and voice unlike any of the others. When that happened, it was more like trusting voice rather than character, trusting body-knowing, intuition, and whatever that place is from which poems emerge.
I think sometimes, as writers, we just need to get out of the way and allow rather than direct the narrative. Often this results in surprising gifts that reveal our writerly selves to be wiser than we think we are. Of course, there is always risk in relinquishing the reins, and sometimes the horses and stagecoach go careening off in a thundering, dust-kicking gallop headed right toward the cliff. For my book, the risks paid off because alcoholic childhoods and teenage street kids are not unlike careening horses, and the fractured, unpredictable voice changes and POV shifts played off of and mirrored the fractured, unpredictable nature of street life, memory, and abusive childhood realities. So trusting characters worked beautifully for the individual chapters, but in terms of overarching structure and bringing it all together into a cohesive narrative . . . Ay! That was challenging as hell and very much like herding cats.
Alexis Woodcock: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that some of the material here was based on personal experiences. Did you have a set idea going into it about how much of yourself to include and how much you wanted the story to be separate from your life and experiences?
Debra Busman: The book started out as memoir, but I quickly discovered that genre was not working for me. I was trying to get at issues that included but also went beyond my own personal story—body memory, violence, survival, narratives of resistance, child/human/spirit resilience. I wanted to write stories that humanized street kids and survivors of violence, that honored and expanded their resistance, celebrated their humor, creativity, and resilience, challenged the dominant reductive and pathologizing narratives of “at-risk” youth. It felt really important for me to be as truthful as I could in these stories, yet when I tried to write them as memoir, I kept hitting up against a wall, frustrated with the second-guessing that comes from trying to ethically navigate what Lidia Yuknavich so brilliantly describes as memoir's "necessary fictions . . . the stories that we build up around ourselves so that we can bear the weight of our own lives." When I shifted from memoir to fiction, it was a huge release and I felt like I could simply tell the truth of these kids' lives. I was free to draw from my own life as it served the greater narrative, to re-member my past when it felt right and yet also reach from a larger palette.
The other thing that happened when I shifted from memoir to fiction was that I could be incredibly fierce and tender towards my main character, Taylor, in ways that I was not yet able to be when writing about myself. And that felt like a non-negotiable condition for writing these stories, that I, as author, completely be there for these kids, that I have their backs in ways that no adult in their lives ever had. Anything short of full-on unconditional love felt like just another betrayal.
Alexis Woodcock: Some of the stories in this novel had been published separately, before like a woman’s release. Was writing and piecing everything together a very non-linear process, or did you know that you wanted this whole story to come out eventually, even as you were only writing parts of it?
Debra Busman: The initial writing itself was a very free-form and nonlinear process, just honoring the form and integrity of each piece as it emerged. What is this particular story and how best can it be told? Once it became clear that there was power in the cumulative effect of the stories gathered together and that I was in fact writing a novel, then the hard work began: how to maintain the gifts a fractured narrative provides yet still weave a cohesive whole. I wanted the disjointed, jarring sensation of POV and genre shifts to enhance the feel of chaotic street life, memory fragments—but never to take or distract the reader out of the narrative. As a novel, this had to be more than simply a collection of linked stories, and fortunately, I was blessed to work with two extremely gifted editors whose structural expertise and sage directing toward the gaps I still needed to write into were invaluable.
Alexis Woodcock: Can you give us an idea of what went into the decision to make a force of nature the thing that eventually gives Taylor PTSD, as opposed to one (or more) of the many people who had significantly harmed her throughout her life?
Debra Busman: Nature had always been a place of refuge for Taylor, a safe haven from the unpredictable brutality of human creatures. She had learned strategies of protection from people and knew more or less how to deal with them, but with nature and animals she was completely open and vulnerable. So when it felt like the ocean betrayed her, she was utterly undone. She had to fight that which had always nurtured and sustained, which of course mirrored the early mother/daughter betrayal where the very person who was supposed to keep her safe from harm was the one who brought the most threat. The ocean also made her feel weak, which was terrifying since physical strength had been key to survival for so many years. And the rough seas churned up old and recently buried memories, trauma compounding trauma, thus creating the perfect storm.
Alexis Woodcock: At the end of the story, we don’t exactly get a happy ending for Taylor, even though she does find a sort of “happy place” to retreat to in her mind. Can you talk a bit about the literary choice to end the story where you did, before Taylor has fully healed from her traumas or found situational contentment?
Debra Busman: It's an open question for me as to whether or not we human creatures ever truly fully heal from our traumas. Circumstances change, sufferings ease, ebb, and flow—we may make peace and learn more cherishing and less destructive coping techniques, but in my experience, this human condition thing is throughout a fairly precarious dance. I believe that survivors of violence and abuse are always more than whatever has been done to them. And also, that that shit can really mess with you! With Taylor's story, I wanted to honor the complexity of survival, to resist a simplistically happy—or tragic—ending. The phenomenon of secondary drowning is that a person can survive a near drowning episode, be standing all safe, warm and cozy, blanketed on the shore, and yet still drown.
Part of what I was trying to do with Taylor as child and street kid was show that, as rough as things were, she was not “only” a victim of abuse. She was also smart and funny, creative and kind, flawed and heroic. These qualities were there for her as a child, as a teen sex-worker, and as a woman swept out to sea. They looked different depending on circumstances, but they were all always there in her. As was the suffering. Fully human through every age, not reduced to fixated victimization or pathology as a child, nor romanticized as being “fully healed” as a woman. And in that, I just find something beautiful, terrifying, and utterly endearing and heroic about the human spirit’s resiliency that carries on, regardless.
Alexis Woodcock: What do you hope readers will take away from like a woman?
Debra Busman: The ways in which this book has been touching folks of all ages, demographics, and circumstances has already gone so far beyond anything I could have hoped for or imagined. The response from readers and reviewers alike has been so incredibly positive, warm, open-minded/hearted, thoughtful, and engaged, that I feel deeply humble, grateful, and more than a little bit in awe.