An Interview with Alyson Mosquera Dutemple
By Ross Reagan
Alyson Mosquera Dutemple’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Passages North, DIAGRAM, The Journal, and Wigleaf, among others, and recently received an honorable mention for Cincinnati Review‘s 2021 Robert and Adele Schiff Awards. She works as an editorial consultant and creative writing instructor in New Jersey and holds a degree from the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
Her newest piece—”Marvelous Freaks of Nature!”—appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Colorado Review. Associate editor Ross Reagan spoke with Alyson Mosquera Dutemple on her process of crafting plot and a fascinating, darkly humorous character.
Ross Reagan: I love that you have written everything from screenplays to craft essays to flash fiction. When you were imagining Marvelous Freaks of Nature!, was it originally going to be a short story?
Alyson Mosquera Dutemple: I wrote this story fairly early in my MFA program, and I had just come off of wrestling these really long stories that were sort of my first foray into the form, and I was having a lot of trouble working with compression because I came from a screenwriting, feature-length film background. I could not really get the hang of writing short. I gave myself the challenge of writing something very short and very compressed, sort of as an antidote to the longer, unwieldy stories I had been working on. I was thinking a lot about restraint when I began drafting this. It was my first experience in letting a story follow its own path entirely. When I was screenwriting, I always knew what the basic outline of the story was, and I would flesh it out.
I think I began fiction writing thinking that I would do it the same way—by always knowing where a story was going. With this one, it was a ride for me. I had no idea what was going to happen next. It was fun, and it really changed the way I approached story writing.
RR: Within the actual book that our protagonist receives, Marvelous Freaks…!, the people inside are described through “very disgusting photographs of things like fully functional people with cleavers stuck in their skulls.” These elements of a freakish nature also come up for Mavis’s character in her everyday life. How did you work toward the images, content, and title in your story and in Mavis’s character?
AMD: The book probably originated in Mavis’s style and delivery. When I was hearing her voice in the first draft, she had a really stylized way of speaking that was very robotic and repetitive and sort of exacting in a scientific kind of way. That speaking style led to a lot of the behaviors she does—the wine drinking and the rituals—that she assigns herself. The idea of the book probably came after, as a reflection of what was already in her.
I was really taken by the idea of those photographs because I’m really interested in my writing in the natural world—specifically how it relates to loneliness. I’m interested in the ways nature can sometimes be a balm, an antidote to those feelings of isolation and loneliness. Mavis can look at and identify with this biological calamity. But sometimes nature can make a person feel more isolated. There are elements of biology that can make someone feel more “other,” and then there are times biology makes someone feel a sense of connectedness. I feel this story tracks a lot of those themes that interest me.
I knew the title had to be just right. It had to reflect that freakishness that Mavis is feeling about herself but also a sense of wonderment that’s not negative. I worked on a bunch of variations for the title. Mavis is really drawn to that book when she gets it because she recognizes something of herself in the pictures. Not literally, but I think Mavis sees herself as one of those people. She sees herself as getting by with this baggage she’s carrying around.
RR: Mavis repeats a lot of unhealthy patterns and behaviors in this piece. We learn her behavior isn’t a new thing that has just developed. Even her parents text her, “We don’t want this to get to be another repeat of last time.” When you were coming up with Mavis’s backstory, how did those behaviors manifest?
AMD: Her behavior is definitely precipitated by something that happened, but it’s not isolated to events that happened recently. I think that comes through with the parents. I wanted to hint at the larger picture beyond the immediate story. But Mavis doesn’t want to tell either of those stories, which was the fun challenge—to have a character that is so dead set on avoidance be a first-person narrator. I really like, as a reader, when a story asks me to fill in the blanks. I tried to let some of that happen in this by not specifying what her parents were talking about.
RR: Can you talk a little more about the relevancy of Mavis’s world and how her behaviors seem to reveal a lot of ways in which we cope in our world today? Was part of this story sort of a cultural commentary on how we’re unable to face the thing that scares us the most?
AMD: It was definitely meant to imply her coping mechanism, being unable to face these things that have happened that are left off the page. But it’s going badly because her wine consumption is going up and she’s not able to distract herself in the way she wishes she could. The things she doesn’t want to face are just outside her peripheral vision all the time, and you get that sense of claustrophobia in her mental space. She’s trying really hard to just look at one place, but everything else in her field of vision is what she’s trying not to look at. That was by design—that sort of claustrophobic, stuck feeling. It’s a way that a lot of people try to get through a difficult time, especially recently.
RR: Mavis seems to crave intimacy while fearing it at the same time. When her best friend Penny discloses she needs a friend after her boyfriend suddenly breaks up with her, Mavis flees. It’s the first moment of physical movement from Mavis, even though she still can’t face Penny. How did you originally plot this quick exit?
AMD: It’s funny, that was the place I got to in the draft when everybody (family) woke up and I had to stop writing. It worked out, though! I got as far as that, and then the next time I was able to grab a couple hours of quiet, I was like: Okay, this is where we are—the cliffhanger! What’s Mavis going to do when Penny confronts her? I don’t know if it was sitting in my subconscious for a couple of days until I could get back to it, but it felt like that was the point when I returned. That action needed to happen, where she finally needed to leave the threshold.
RR: Another line that is repeated by Mavis’s character in this piece involves some serious self-deprecation. At the beginning and end of the story, she describes herself as “one of those sad young women.” This seems to be a collective truth from her point of view. Can you expand on this sadness and self-judgment?
AMD: I really felt like I was hearing Mavis, and that was one of the things that she said when I was working on the first draft. She repeats herself a lot in this story. It made sense that certain things that she says come back because that’s the nature of the way she does things. She’s on a loop. She’s stuck repeating actions, repeating behaviors we don’t even know about but we glean from what other characters are saying. I didn’t try to overthink some of the things she says about herself. They felt true to the spirit of the character. I felt it was emotionally truthful to her in those two moments.
It might be one of the only times she groups herself in with some other group or other people in the story. She’s identifying with people even though she feels so isolated. Unfortunately, it’s in a negative way. She doesn’t have the bandwidth to notice she’s doing that.
RR: I also love that there’s so much humor in this piece!
AMD: I love humor in writing. I love the tragicomic, so that’s a huge compliment to have that coming through because that’s what I am drawn to—looking for the moments of levity in the depths of despair.
RR: We don’t get a lot of time markers in this piece, except near the end. Was it intentional to be broader and more ambiguous with Mavis in setting and time?
AMD: I think there weren’t a lot of time markers in the beginning because of the fog that she’s living in, that feeling of being stuck on cycle and repetition. She’s in a drunken haze at the beginning of the story, and I think it’s helpful to not have time markers when the character is not feeling the time makers. She’s not really noticing. It’s a long winter for her.
Toward the end, the last snowstorm of the story happens in the spring, so it’s still ongoing—this relentless winter—but there’s hope that it’s not going to last forever. I think that feeling of relentlessness slowly giving over to change is touched upon in other ways in the story. Mavis talks about her body as “relentless.” She’s got a relentless personality. These ideas of behaviors kind of repeating themselves—not being able to outrun your past—have a feeling of relentlessness. Nature is “relentless” because it keeps dumping all this snow. There’s this idea of “pressing-down” this relentlessness that she’s up against, but it’s not entirely without hope.
To see more from Alyson Mosquera Dutemple, you can find her on Twitter (@swellspoken) or through her website.
Ross Reagan’s work has appeared in F(r)iction and the Indianapolis Star. He holds an MFA in fiction from Colorado State University and is also a former associate editor for Colorado Review.