Alissa Nutting’s debut short-story collection, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls — winner of the Sixth Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction and finalist for the Eric Hoffner Montaigne Medal for Thought-Provoking Texts — earns its distinction with its candid and fearless style. Nutting takes a pinch of fairy tale’s matter-of-fact language, a dash of minimalism’s simple sentence structure, and a soupçon of fabulism’s absurdity to concoct a strangely familiar world in which women navigate the mottled bog of feminine identity.
Confronted with limitations both real and constructed, the women in these 18 stories revenge, experience violence, alter their identities, murder and are murdered. Yet Nutting’s characters eschew victimhood. In the opening story, “Dinner,” a woman assigned to the gruesomest of circumstances finds comfort in communion: “You can bear anything, I tell myself, if you know you’re not alone.” Likewise, in “Porn Star,” a woman expected to have sex on the moon comes to the tragic, yet necessary, conclusion that her limited freedom to choose is at least better than no freedom at all: “At least I’m not giving people root canals. At least I’m not putting makeup on the dead.”
Ultimately, Nutting’s collection shows us a spectrum of unique behaviors for women in tragic — or maybe just human — circumstances. In Alissa Nutting’s own words: each of these stories represents “limbs on the same tree of female loneliness.” And despite the rampant misogyny and violence, compassion and gratitude nearly always return to the characters. In “Magician,” the final story, the physical reality of a severed limb supplants the comfort of illusion, of failing to see another person’s reality. With this and other stories, Nutting demonstrates her uncanny ability to cut right through the horror and absurdity of our lives, right down to the bone of humanity. Gnarled, stunted, twisted, the branches of this collection are ever-expanding, ever-bountiful, and strewn with ribbons that signify our greatest hopes and wishes as women, as a society, as humans.
In the brief interview that follows, Alissa Nutting talks about her process for writing, collecting, and arranging these stories.
Did you have a method for ordering these stories?
I guess in some ways I thought of the stories as a variety show, and myself as the host. I wanted to pair up stories that had an overarching affinity, as I saw it, but I also didn’t want too much like to follow like so that hopefully the audience wouldn’t get bored. Some of the stories are very very short, and some are less short, so I especially tried to have a balance there. In a way, with the short/longer/short, at times the book reads like interval training. Power bursts sandwiched between a steady cadence.
Did you have a criterion for which stories you included or excluded? Are there B-sides?
To me this question is so flattering because it assumes a kind of prolific nature on my part that I wish were true, but isn’t! There were 5 or 6 core stories that were clearly of a feather, and once I realized that they wanted to live in the same house and be a forever family in a collection, I started writing additional siblings for them. So instead of having a bunch of material and deciding what to include and what not to include, this collection more came together by me writing stories specifically to fit inside of it.
Did you ever feel limited by having this constraint for your book? Or was the limitation more generative?
It was more generative because it helped me focus. I always had an idea of where to begin because I knew the voice would be female, first-person, rejected or on the margins of society somehow, and I knew to approach her character through some sort of job title or social occupation. To me the most terrifying prospect of any writing is having no idea of where to begin. I love assignments, themes. My favorite tasks are when a publication says, “We’d like a story/essay about THIS, that’s about X number of words.” I feel like that takes care of all the difficult work somehow. I’m always like, “Wow that’s great; all I have to do is write the piece!” and it seems that I’m getting away with something by not having had to come up with all the requirements.
I read that at some point in the process you conceived of these stories as chapters in a novel. How did the collection evolve over time?
Once I realized that in some ways, all the stories were the same voice—different characters and costumes, different branches, but all limbs on the same tree of female loneliness, with a similar coping device of humor and sarcasm—there was then the task of how best to present that cohesion. How much to amplify it or stress the common ground, and how much to let each story stand on its own. Ultimately I grew to feel like the jobs/titles did that, and the unified first-person POV of every story did that, and I could let the rest be implied, but in some ways I’ll always think of it as a Groundhog Day-type of larger narrative, each story a different take on the last.
Where did the inspiration for the title come from?
For the title, I really wanted it to speak to the way that in our culture, merely being female, of any age, predisposes and indoctrinates you to align with specific desires, behaviors, and shames. I thought it was important to acknowledge that spectrum, and show some different points on its timeline through the different stories. For all of the characters, their lives and situations would be different if our expectations and categorizations of gender were different, so the book demanded a title that acknowledged that central thread.
Alissa Nutting is the author of Tampa (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2013) and Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls (Starcherone/Dzanc, 2010). Her fiction has or will appear in The Norton Introduction to Literature, Tin House, Bomb, and Conduit; her essays have appeared in Fence, the New York Times, O: The Oprah Magazine, and other venues. An assistant professor of creative writing and English literature at John Carroll University, she lives in Ohio with her husband, her daughter, and two spoiled tiny dogs.