INTERVIEW: Rachel Swirsky, Author of “Beyond the Naked Eye”

Rachel Swirsky holds an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers Workshop. Her short fiction has appeared in venues including, Subterranean Magazine, and Clarkesworld Magazine. In 2010, she won the Nebula for best novella for “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window.”

What was the genesis of your story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

I was toying around with putting Oz in a bunch of different genres. Like Oz the Romance: with steamy, erotic scenes between Dorothy and the Tin Man, and lots of words like manhood and throb. While I complained about the difficulty of the task, someone I was sitting with suggested, “Heh, it could be a reality show,” and I said, “Yes, yes, it could.” I originally pictured it as farcical, with all the characters dressed in Dorothy costumes and jumping to a start gun at the beginning of the yellow brick road, but it ended up getting a little bit more strange and elliptical.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

This story has a few different threads that originally had very different voices: parts in the voice of Kristol Kristoff, descriptions of the reality show, and omniscient meta-commentary. I was about a third of the way through the story before I figured out who Kristol was, and that he was the narrator, and what the plot would be. It was difficult to reshuffle the elements and rewrite the story so that he was integrated in the voice from the beginning.

Most authors say all their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

My father’s favorite movie is The Wizard of Oz so I watched it a lot as a kid, along with The Return to Oz. He also collected all the books and read them to me at night. So Oz is part of my subconscious, I guess, and it was fun to get to poke into that world and see what I might make of it as an adult.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

I read up on Oz, of course, and had to make sure that I kept the movie separate from the books in my head. I also did some research on gems, which was fun. There are always lots of minor details, too, like looking at pictures of people dressed in art deco style so I could decide on my costuming. The nitty details are often the fun part.

What is the appeal of Oz? Why do you think readers/viewers love it so much?

I think Oz is a sandbox story–the world is very open. It’s easy for readers to imagine themselves in Dorothy’s position, coming in to visit the wonders. And since there are so many parts of Oz, you can imagine yourself encountering whatever fanciful things you want, at any point in Oz’s history.

What are some of your favorite Oz memories (whether from the books or the various movies, or other “reimaginings”), and what makes them your favorites?

I really like Mombi. I had quite an enthusiasm for Return to Oz when I was a kid, and lots of the imagery in that was neat — early Steampunk? — but I especially liked creepy, powerful Mombi. As an adult, looking back through the books, I find myself intrigued by Mombi again. I think there are some really interesting stories there.

What do you think about the new Oz movie coming out in March, Oz: The Great and Powerful? Excited? Dubious? Some combination of both?

I’m excited. I like it when worlds get examined and re-examined, when there are lots of people looking at them in different ways. Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland isn’t going to replace Alice in Wonderland. It doesn’t capture the essential energy of Alice in the same way that some of the more traditional tellings. (My favorite is the 1983 Masterpiece Theatre recording of a play version of Alice, starring Nathan Lane as a mouse.) But Burton complements Alice, creates a new way of playing with it and looking at it. I think perhaps my enjoyment of that kind of reinterpretation is influenced by my background in theater–unlike movies and television, when you have a juicy theatrical role, it’s constantly reinvented as new directors, new companies, and new actors find different meanings and beauty in the text. I don’t expect Oz: The Great and Powerful to stand on its own, but I’m excited to see what new meanings and beauty they’ve found in the narrative.

My favorite existing reinterpretation of Oz, by the by, is Gregory Maguire’s Wicked–not the musical, and not the sequels–just the strange, disorienting book, with its gauze of sadness, and failing rebellion.