Karen Tucker on Her Debut Novel ‘Bewilderness’
Our June 4 prose feature, “Bewilderness,” was adapted from Karen Tucker’s short story “Anklewood,” which appeared in TMR 40:4. Tucker’s recently published novel from Catapult is a story of female friendship, low-wage work, and addiction in small-town North Carolina. In the interview that follows, Matthew Zanoni Müller talks with the author about the intersection of her own experience and her debut novel. You can read our featured excerpt from “Bewilderness” here.
Following Each Dangling Thread: An Interview with Karen Tucker about Her Debut Novel Bewilderness, and Writing about the Restaurant Industry, Friendship, and Addiction
by Matthew Zanoni Müller
Matthew Zanoni Müller: Your two main characters, Irene and Luce, both work restaurant jobs. This is how they make their money, where they meet, and where they forge their friendship. It is also where they encounter a host of challenges, from sexual harassment, to low pay, to difficult customers. Your book seems very interested in exploring this industry that you worked in yourself for years. What was it like mining this territory? Were there specific things you hoped readers would take from Irene and Luce’s experiences?
Karen Tucker: It’s funny: back when I was mired neck-deep in the restaurant industry, the absolute last thing I wanted to do was write about it. Imagine working so hard your legs shake as you walk to your car at midnight, going home and having yet another waiter nightmare that leaves you stressed-out and exhausted, and then waking up to spend even more time in that world by writing a story about a couple of food servers? No, thanks. But at some point after those twenty-plus years had passed, my ruined legs and I decided to allow ourselves to be exploited in a different fashion, and together we finagled our way into grad school. In Florida, with a sizeable pay cut, I taught writing to undergrads in exchange for time to work on a novel. Of course I deeply missed my restaurant colleagues––the funniest, most creative bunch of humans you could ever assemble––and at last I was ready to tie myself into an imaginary apron and write about the lean and hungry experience of waiting tables. One thing I wanted readers who haven’t been on the other side of the table to understand is that it’s not the romanticized version of low-income work we see so often in various stories. Forget the popular customer-as-savior trope––harassment is a million times more likely. No one theatrically quits midshift in protest over harassment; you can’t afford to. Your manager probably won’t defend you if you complain, but you also won’t get fired on the spot if you say something rude to Mr. Harasser. Your manager will instead wait for you to finish out your tables, do your sidework, turn in the cash and credit card slips you’ve collected, and leave the building. Only after you’ve shown up for work the following day, hoping to earn a few more crucial dollars, will they give you the axe.
MM: This is foremost a book about addiction. We follow Luce and Irene as they score drugs, go to meetings, and experience the highs and lows of pills. How did you approach balancing the very real and specific characteristics of both Irene and Luce’s addiction with the larger and more universal workings of this world that so many experience?
KT: By no means did I set out to scrutinize the pharmaceutical industry, the rehab industry, the health insurance industry, or any other for-profit systems that routinely fail people with substance use disorder. I have no experience in that kind of reportage. My only goal was to take a close-up look at two characters: Irene and Luce. As I came to discover, peering through a magnifying lens tends to reveal something unexpected, and you can’t tell the full story about food servers in a former mill town unless you’re willing to follow each dangling thread. In the end I spent as much time researching the circumstances of these characters’ lives as I did imagining them. In this way, I often felt more like the novel’s reader than its writer. Some days it felt as though the story were being told to me. Not in a spooky mystical sense––no characters were channeled in the drafting of this story––but I learned so much about my novel and those who inhabit it by reading numerous accounts of shady pain management centers, criminal rehab centers, doctors who accept payments from pharmaceutical reps in exchange for overprescribing opioid medication, and doctors who refuse to prescribe meds to patients with real pain.
MM: At the heart of this book is the friendship between Irene and Luce. In an especially poignant moment, Irene says, “That night, when I met Luce’s eyes in the dim of her beat-up Impala . . . I sensed she understood me better than anyone, including my own mother.” This moment explains so much of what comes after. The small acts of sabotage Irene engages in to keep Luce close to her, the protective need she has to keep Luce in her life. It seems to me that friendships don’t always get the nuanced attention they deserve in our culture. What considerations did you have in mind as you chose to center a friendship in this story?
KT: I wrote this novel at a very lonely time in my life. This is embarrassing to admit, even to myself. But yes: I was an older person who had gone back to school after dropping out of undergrad years earlier. I felt ill-equipped, anxious, frightened. At times I felt excluded because of the age difference––not always, but enough for it to sting. Looking back, I think I dreamed up this intense and heady relationship, flawed though it is, because I so very much wanted a friend like Luce.
MM: Irene and Luce are constantly scraping for extra money, have to settle for the indignities associated with low-wage work, and near the end, when Luce is offered the opportunity go to a posh rehab facility, Irene cannot join her since she does not have insurance. Their town of Anklewood too, seems to have fallen on hard times: “The old Revco where we’d once filled my father’s heart med prescriptions before it went out of business, which was now E-Z Title Pawn and Payday loans. After that came a string of boarded-up buildings…” How did you approach thinking about class in this book? Is the role of the novel to describe and illuminate, or should it also advocate in some way?
KT: When I first saw Bewilderness being described as set in a world of poverty, it surprised me a little. These women have jobs, they pay rent each month. Luce has a car that needs repairs, but it’s not totaled. Irene has a thousand dollars in her savings account. These were my circumstances for years and years, and while I understand now that some people view this as impoverished, to me it’s normal. At the same time, I always intended for class to play a distinct role in this novel. By centering a low-income community and scooting middle-class earners out to the periphery, it felt like seizing hold of something vital. Power, I think is the word. Along with class, gender plays a sizable part in how Irene and Luce’s circumstances unfold, as does their whiteness. Throughout the novel, I tried to show how these three identities, inextricable from each other, work for and against them in multiple ways. And just like you can’t separate multiple identities in a set of characters, it’s impossible to extract them from an author. A white author who doesn’t engage with whiteness, class, and gender likely sees no need to because they’re already in possession of power and glad of it. Writers who insist that art should be some mythical version of neutral are––as my mom would say––telling on themselves.
MM: The previous question also brings up for me the ways in which this book tackles sexual harassment and the very real dangers that Irene and Luce face in a variety of situations, be it trying to score or working at a restaurant. You write, for example, how they get a job at a chain restaurant and how one of the major benefits of this setup is that there is “Even a sexual harassment hotline that went straight to corporate.” How did you approach writing about the dangers posed to female addicts in particular?
KT: Very few women escape harassment of some kind, and statistics reveal that many of us have experienced far worse than that. Among other delights, I’ve been chased on foot, chased in a car, serially harassed at multiple jobs by customers and co-workers, received explicit anonymous letters mailed to my apartment, and been grabbed by any number of male humans, including one who briefly and terrifyingly refused to let me leave his house. Once, a customer asked me to join him for drinks elsewhere after my shift ended. I declined, excusing myself with some made-up story. The next morning I learned that he’d shot the cocktail server he went out with instead. I won’t describe the grisliest event of all, which happened to a woman I worked with back when I was Irene’s age and she was Luce’s. She is no longer alive. All this is to say that it wasn’t difficult to weave the dangers of being a woman into this novel. It would have been impossible to leave them out.
MM: Irene’s voice rings so bright and true in the book, and so much of my experience of reading this book was propelled by that voice. Did you hear it right away or did it develop over time? I imagine you must have spent a lot of time crafting the delicate balance of her voice as both a real person and someone tasked with telling this story.
KT: Thank you for saying that about Irene’s voice! I’ve always sucked at that part of storytelling, so it makes me happy to hear. Whatever might be effective about Irene’s voice is probably the result of two things: years and years of writing, and a lot of personal fear/anger/desire finding its way into the sentences. Once I gave up trying to sound smart, abandoned the notion of pretty language, and instead harnessed those feelings, I was better equipped to fight my way through the story’s brambles, including the dilemma of how to tell it. Also, I thought a lot about readers and how short our time is on this absurd little planet. I tried hard not to bore anyone.
MM: In an epic chapter you make use of a Reddit substream and allow the reader this objective look at Irene and how she interacts with the other members of this group. This was a risky move in the book, since it took us outside her perspective. It also brought us right into one of the spaces where Irene clearly spends a lot of her time. How did you come to include this section in your book, which ends up being part of the emotional weight of your ending?
KT: Haha, that was one of the most enjoyable chapters to write and I’m glad it worked for you. It probably doesn’t work for everyone. The idea to include it came about pretty naturally, since I was already spending a lot of time on Reddit. I knew why someone like Irene might be drawn to that world. I mean, hey, if you’re marginalized and/or criminalized, as people with substance use disorder so often are, anonymous online message boards can be a great way to safely find community. Added bonus: that chapter gave me the opportunity to include a wide range of voices, since up until that point in the story, narrator Irene has been hogging the mic.
As a baby writer, I used to believe that first-person point of view is the most intimate of choices, but now I think first-person can be the most distancing, which for me is a big part of the attraction. It’s certainly one way for writers to get a lot of mileage out of that perspective, since it essentially gives readers two stories: the one the narrator is telling them, and the shadow story hot on its heels. Including the Reddit chapter was my way of hitting Irene with one of those oversized theatre spotlights, making her shadow even more prominent.
MM: We are currently living through a pandemic where issues surrounding mental health have risen to the fore. Included in this is the difficulty that so many people who struggle with addiction are facing. A student I was very fond of overdosed in his car in our school parking lot, and while I don’t know too much about his situation, I can only imagine that this pandemic did not help. It’s tough to discuss a book’s timeliness, and of course you wrote this before the pandemic, but I’m wondering whether you’ve been thinking about this at all as you’ve watched the events of the last year unfold. Do you have hopes for how it will be received?
KT: I’m so sorry to hear about your student. I came very close to losing a loved one in January 2021. Thank god for the quick response from EMTs and the paramedic. Thank god for Jack Fishman, inventor of naloxone. It’s true this global health crisis did no favors to people who grapple with substance use disorder. Recent data from the CDC confirms that overdose deaths accelerated during the pandemic. And once again, it’s impossible to ignore how race and class play into this. Research shows that Black and brown individuals receive less evidence-based treatment than white people, partly due to racial bias from medical providers, partly because there’s less community access. Meanwhile, class and income levels affect everything from the cost of short and long-term treatment, to the availability of life-saving Narcan, to the ability and willingness to call an ambulance during an overdose crisis, to living in an accessible location that allows a medical team to reach you in time. As far as Bewilderness goes, this novel was written by a person who felt a bit stranded and at sea. If it helps someone else feel less alone during this terrible era, I would be grateful.
MM: During a chapter where they’re working a booth at a fair, Luce meets Wilky, the man who poses a threat to their friendship by wanting to lure Luce away to Florida and therefore, out of Irene’s life. In a moment of jealous abandonment, Irene “Went straight to her purse and chewed up [their] last two pills.” When Luce confronts her about it later, she lies. I was taken by moments like this because we spend a lot of the novel watching Irene work through her need for something steady, reliable, for something like love. And throughout we see her struggling with this. Her flaws are what end up revealing her desires so forcefully to the reader and also set up the double-bind of her gracious act at the end of the novel. In a time where we often talk about likeable or unlikable characters, this seemed like a risky move. And yet, we wouldn’t know her at all without these moments and the book takes so much of its beauty from them. Did you worry about whether or not she was likable, or did you just write her as she was? Is this even something we should ever worry about as writers? It seems like such a trap.
KT: My favorite protagonists are sloppy, flawed people. My favorite people are flawed and sloppy. I happen to be someone who very much wants to be liked as well as someone who turns out to be quite unlikeable with regrettable frequency. It’s the neediness, I think. Not ideal in a real-life situation, but quite useful for a character. It wasn’t difficult to have Irene make impulsive, needy decisions. Besides, if she’d been anything close to a saint, I would have abandoned the draft early on out of boredom. Her constant hunger kept me awake and paying attention. Some days I felt compelled to write just so she’d settle down a little––and once I finished, I felt myself settle down a bit, too.
You ask if this likability quality is something authors should worry about. Who knows? No doubt some readers will be put off by Irene’s nonsense, and since I hope to publish another novel at some point in the future, it’s probably not the most brilliant strategy to make writerly choices that will cut into the numbers. Anyone trying to earn actual income as a storyteller has no shortage of obstacles. Maybe I shouldn’t have chucked another one onto the pile. For me, though, my primary concern was creating a real human who exists in a fantastical situation––by which I mean plopped on a watery rock and hurtling through a vacuum-packed concoction of radiation and space plasma and who knows what else. It’ll all be over sooner than we expect. I did my best in this book to slow things down and take them moment-by-moment, and although I dedicated Bewilderness to those of us who are already gone, I also wrote it for those of us who are trying to stay.
Matthew Zanoni Müller received his MFA from Warren Wilson College and published a memoir with his father entitled Drops on the Water: Stories about Growing Up from a Father and Son (Apprentice House). He has also published shorter works in the Southeast Review, NANO Fiction, the Boiler Journal, Hippocampus, and Halfway Down the Stairs, among others. Müller is an associate nonfiction editor at Pithead Chapel and is at work on a novel. He was born in Bochum, Germany and lives in western Massachusetts, where he teaches English at his local community college. To learn more about his writing, please visit: www.matthewzanonimuller.com