Thursday, February 8, 2024

Q&A with Julia Ridley Smith


Photo by VanderVeen Photographers



Julia Ridley Smith is the author of the new story collection Sex Romp Gone Wrong. She also has written the memoir The Sum of Trifles. She teaches creative writing at UNC Chapel Hill.


Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in your new collection?


A: Over a period of 20 years or so. During that time, I also published other stories and The Sum of Trifles, my memoir about cleaning out my antique dealer parents’ house.


Q: How did you decide on the order in which the stories would appear in the book?


A: When I was deciding what to include in Sex Romp Gone Wrong, I realized I had this big group of stories exploring women and girls’ experiences with relationships, desire, and mothering. My agent, editor, and I arranged them so all the stories with first-person narrators, or mom main characters, or younger narrators weren’t clumped together.


While most of the stories in the book are realistic fiction, there are several, like “Hot Lesbian Vampire Magic School” and “The Woman Who Did Things Wrong,” that have more fantastical elements. I wanted to intersperse these shorter, stranger tales among the longer stories so the reader gets a little jolt of surprise here and there.


Personally, I enjoy collections in which the stories might share themes or a general sensibility, but they vary in terms of form and language.


Q: The writer Gwen E. Kirby said of the book, “Julia Ridley Smith creates a perfect blend of laugh-out-loud humor and profound pathos as she imagines women's lives gone wrong (and occasionally oh-so-right).” What do you think of this description, and what did you see as the right balance between humor and pathos?


A: I love this description. If you haven’t read Kirby’s collection Shit Cassandra Saw, you absolutely should. She takes familiar narratives about girls and women, and spins them around and shakes them up in such imaginative and heartbreaking ways.


Most of my favorite writers do this—mix humor and pathos. The Irish writer Kevin Barry is a good example.

I love stories where you’re laughing at a ridiculous situation or the funny way the writer words a sentence, and then your stomach drops because suddenly the narration delivers a hard truth or a character encounters pain or sorrow or danger. The laughter’s echo is still playing in your head as you realize this person is in trouble.


And I also enjoy when it goes the other way round—when humor breaks up a heavy moment. This mixture of response feels so human to me. We can be slow to change course when life throws us something new. It can take time for our feelings to catch up. It’s like: oh, damn, is this what we’re doing now? Uh, ok, let me try to figure out how to be now.


As far as blending humor and pathos goes, you have to work not to go too far in either direction, so the balance is right. When I’m drafting a story and a character’s response seems too simplistic, I keep pushing to see what conflicting feelings this particular person is having in a particular situation. I don’t want the story to land on a resolution that’s too neat.


Q: How was the book’s title (also the title of one of the stories) chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: In the story “Sex Romp Gone Wrong,” that title refers to a tabloid item about a celebrity caught in a “three-way with her personal trainer and coked-out former child star Cody Blaine.”


The title provides a silly but slightly alarming undercurrent to the story, which is about a mother who’s trying to conceive another child at the same time her young teen daughter is discovering her own sexuality. Mother and daughter are at opposite ends of their fertile years, but they each feel awkward about their desires and their own desirability.


Throughout the collection, the characters can never quite figure out the best way to fulfill their desires—whether they’re yearning for sex, romance, friendship, family, or something else. They fumble and get themselves into trouble, or trouble finds them.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: A novel about Delia, who appears in several stories in Sex Romp Gone Wrong. The novel starts off in 2020, so you know things will go wrong.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: It’s been funny lately to realize how often I return to this theme of desire. It can be so difficult and confusing, trying to align what we want with what we have.


If you have a kid, it’s like when your kid is little, and they absolutely love applesauce. So you buy a bunch of applesauce, thinking, ok, now I’m really getting the hang of keeping this kid happy. I’m a great parent. And the next thing you know, the kid’s projectile vomiting the applesauce and refuses to ever touch it again.


That’s pretty much the human experience in a nutshell. We’re never satisfied, and we can never keep anybody else satisfied. You have to laugh.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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