Good Relationships Are Boring: A Q&A with Lauren Holmes

Article by liz

“Slut” is a strong word. I have never written a more obvious statement in my life, but I need us to start on the same page here. It’s coarse and contradictory. To some, it’s an insult; to others, an attitude. To many, it’s a slur to be reclaimed, while still more insist it can be a term of endearment. Even I don’t know where I fall on “slut.” It’s not a curse word, technically, yet when I put this book’s full title in our email newsletter, it trips an alert that says, “This message might get spam-filtered.” At the risk of appearing to make a truly tasteless pun (I promise I’m sincere here), “slut” contains multitudes.

Lauren Holmes made a gutsy choice, then, to title her first story collection BARBARA THE SLUT AND OTHER PEOPLE. But then again, it’s a gutsy collection. This book seems designed to fake you out—to challenge everything you might assume about it at first blush. If you think the frankness of its title means it’s a sexcapade book, or violet-hued teary chronicles of failing loves, sorry to disappoint you. There’s nothing expected about this book, whether you’re making your assumptions from the title or from the associations normally pegged to authors like Holmes (young, female, debut). BARBARA THE SLUT AND OTHER PEOPLE is violently modern, defiantly uncategorical. Its stories are perfect microcosms of challenge and self-definition. It’s as complicated as its title, really.

When I first pulled it off the shelf, I zoomed through a mini emotional rollercoaster: a stomach-plunging cringe at the bold title; followed by a cautious head-tilt at “Other People,” pleased at the centering of these stories on individuals and not archetypes; and finally, a huff of relief at finding a female writer’s bio in the back (I get uncomfortable when men toss around the word “slut,” what can I say).

And then, to be honest, I made a little “eep!” sound and clutched the book to my chest when I read the rest of the bio, because I saw that Holmes and I share an alma mater. But I promise I don’t just love this book because it’s from a fellow Seven Sister. I love this book because it takes a frank look at a myriad of “It’s Complicated” relationships, between friends and lovers and parents and step-parents and dogs (many dogs). I love this book because it takes all the title’s promises of complication and contradiction and makes good on them with layered stories that don’t give any easy answers. I love this book because it, too, contains multitudes.

Brazos Bookstore: So, as a fellow alumna, I have to ask the Wellesley question first: how did your time in an all-women’s space affect the stories you decided to tell? Reading BARBARA THE SLUT, I felt women’s narratives centralized in a way I’m still not used to seeing in books. I found it really refreshing.

Lauren Holmes: Thank you! At women’s colleges, I think the fact that women come first (I mean that both literally and in terms of the joke) changes the way stories are told there. It’s an interesting (and privileged) perspective to not have to worry about some of the hard parts of being a woman for a while, and to get to worry about other things. That perspective informed my characters and their worlds—while my stories are very much about being female in a specific time and place, I think they take a certain level of gender equality for granted, a level that does exist at places like Wellesley.

BB: This collection is incredibly topical and important, with the way women in literature and the media are currently getting a lot of attention, like the GamerGate controversy and the buzz created by the 2014 VIDA Count. How do you hope your book might fit into the greater dialogue about women, both creators and characters, in books and film right now?

LH: I hope my book fits into that larger conversation in a couple of ways—I hope we’re moving toward breaking down the divide between women’s fiction and men’s fiction, and women’s entertainment and men’s entertainment. I hope men can read this book, with its pink cover, not as outside observers, but as humans reading about other humans (and dogs). And I hope the book will serve as one of many representations of female sexuality and female desire that will keep challenging our society’s extreme representations of women as either sexually inhibited or repressed, or dangerously sexual.

BB: The subtitle of the book, “And Other People,” is actually what made me pull the book off the shelf. I thought that was an incredibly smart thing to title it, instead of the expected “Other Stories,” because sex and relationships really are a singularly personal thing. I feel like anyone coming into BARBARA THE SLUT just looking for sex in the stories is going to miss the crucial, er, meat of the book. Sure, there’s sex—sometimes—but more than that, you handle a lot of different types of relationships: parents, siblings, parents’ boyfriends, employers who are weirdly invested in your sexual orientation. Were there particular sets of experiences you wanted to highlight? How did you choose what stories to tell here?

LH: I’m so happy to hear that the subtitle grabbed you, and I love your read of it. Yeah, I think anyone reading for sex is going to be disappointed. Sorry! What I really wanted was to balance all those different types of relationships, and all the different parts of my characters’ lives. Our real lives aren’t neatly compartmentalized, and I think fiction feels true and full when it engages as many facets of its characters as possible, and allows those facets to intersect—how families and romantic relationships affect each other, how personal lives and jobs affect each other, and how sex affects and is affected by the rest of life.

BB: One of my favorite things about this book was how incredibly unsexy a lot of the real details of these stories are, like the narrator’s semi-repulsion with Beth in “Weekend With Beth, Kelly, Muscle, and Pammy,” or the legitimate terror of the HIV test in “Mike Anonymous.” A lot of your stories highlight breakups, breakdowns in communication: all the unglamorous parts of relationships, sexual and not. Was it important to you to illustrate these places where relationships fail?

LH: It definitely was important to me to illustrate the places where relationships fail, but for selfish reasons—I think those places make a better story. Good relationships are great, but they’re boring. Good luck finding anyone who wants to hear about the pros of your relationship for more than five minutes. You get so much more mileage out of the cons—relationship problems and tensions can propel plots, and can reveal characters at their most complex and most compelling.

BB: Did you get any discomfort with your subject matter during the review and editing process? Or, I guess what I’m really asking is—do people get weird when you’re writing stories about sex?

LH: People don’t get as weird as I thought they would. When I studied with her at Wellesley, Alicia Erian told me everyone loves talking about sex, and she was right. I’m probably the weirdest of anyone in those situations—I’m very comfortable talking about sex, but that doesn’t mean I’m not subject to the shame of thinking about sex, and I’m kind of caught thinking about it in my writing.

BB: I noticed (and loved) that there was a dog in nearly every story, so I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you’re a dog person. Do dogs have a special place in the relationship hierarchy to you?

LH: I actually don’t really like dogs. I don’t know why everybody thinks that. Psych! Yes, dogs have a special place in my relationship hierarchy. I’m so grateful to my dogs for being constants in my life, and I wouldn’t change my relationship with them based on changes in human relationships. I don’t mention that on first dates, though. I don’t want to sound crazy.

BB: You have no idea whom we’ll talk to for the next Brazos Q&A, but never mind that: What should we ask him/her?

LH: What was the last thing that made you laugh so hard that you cried, choked, peed, whatever?

BB: And on that note, Mark Haskell Smith, author of NAKED AT LUNCH, very topically wants to know: Have you ever been naked in public?

LH: I’m sorry to say that I’ve never been naked in public. I’m sure it doesn’t seem like it, but I’m a pretty private person.

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