Interview: Rachel Swirsky


The sailor is clean-cut cute in his brand new World War II double-breasted blazer. He smells vaguely of gun powder and deeply of salt and sweat. Fine blond stubble dusts his upper lip.

He tries to pretend he’s not interested, sea blue eyes cutting toward the linoleum. Rainbow pushes through the herd of bleating goats and presses her glittery thigh against his knife-creased pants.

“Who do you think you’re fooling?” she asks, full flirt. “What are you, a singer in Sunday choir?”

Pink cheeks redden like tomatoes on the vine. “They call me Harry.”

She strokes his collar. “May I snatch a little purity?”

They marry at midnight, standing on the counter between the cash register and the display case, miniaturized so that the whole wedding party could fit in the cashier’s palm.

      —from “Death and the All-Night Donut Shop” (Unstuck #1)

Rachel Swirsky holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her short fiction has won the Nebula Award and been nominated for the Hugo Award. Her first collection, Through the Drowsy Dark, a slim volume of stories and po­etry, came out in 2010.

Interview by Allie Werner

UNSTUCK:   “Death and the All-Night Donut Shop” follows a flurry of ghosts who gather in a late-night doughnut shop in order to find temporary spouses in the afterlife. How did this story originate?

RACHEL SWIRSKY: I was writing a lot of little flash pieces at the time, about 300 words each. There had been a contest for them and I discovered it was fun. This story started as one of those. I was giving myself vague prompts as starting points and in this case I had decided to write about an actual all-night doughnut store and wedding chapel which I'd heard about: Voodoo Doughnuts. From there, the idea of ghosts being involved amused me, so that was the germ of it.

UNSTUCK: I used to frequent that very doughnut shop when I lived in Portland. It does seem like a good gathering place for ghosts.

RACHEL SWIRSKY: I've been there once! I had a doughnut, but I don't remember which kind. I remember that everyone looked bored.

UNSTUCK: The maple bacon bar was always my pastry of choice there. What's your favorite variety of doughnut?

RACHEL SWIRSKY: I like chocolate old-fashioned doughnuts, which I have no particular justification for, except that they have chocolate, and are kind of crispy in places, and allow you to break off bits and eat them separately. All in all, it's fairly clear that this preference was formed when I was very young.

UNSTUCK: One of the things that I really enjoy about “Death and the All-Night Donut Shop” is that the ghosts are inhabiting a space of the living, but it isn't a locale that people usually think of as being haunted. We're more likely to look out for ghosts when we're in a dilapidated mansion, or hiking through the misty moors. What are some other non-traditional places that you think would be fun for ghosts to inhabit?

RACHEL SWIRSKY: I have another story about Princess Diana as a ghost who is haunting the condo of a gay couple in  Florida. Non-fictionally, I have a friend who believes her car's electrical system is haunted by her deceased father. The sky's the limit. (And there could be lots of ghosts in the sky.)

Oh! And kitchens. I have a story about that. I was staying in this hotel in Anchorage, Alaska, that was across from a cemetery. I wanted to know if there were any ghost stories connected to the cemetery, so I looked them up. I didn't find any ghost stories—the city's not very old, so perhaps there hadn't been a lot of time for really good stories to develop—but I did find a message board where people were posting ghost stories from personal experiences. One of the posters was a woman from Anchorage. Some of her stories were generic—like, she felt a PRESENCE when she was driving around a sharp corner and WHAT IF SOMEONE DIED THERE. But she also had this fabulous story about coming downstairs to the kitchen in a new house and seeing a ghost at the sink, like, preparing breakfast. "Excuse me," she said, "would you mind going? This is my house." And the ghost politely popped off.

I love the idea of a ghost that's, you know, really intent on making an omelet, but doesn't want to be rude. I'm writing a middle-grade novel about it.

UNSTUCK: The ghosts in “Death and the All-Night Donut Shop” don't seem particularly interested in interrupting the activities of the living. They're much more interested in living their own afterlives.

RACHEL SWIRSKY: In some ways, it's rather self-absorbed of us to figure that the dead would care about us. There would be a lot more of them than there are of us and most of them would have been dead long enough that being alive would be like vague memories of being in a crib.

UNSTUCK: Many of your stories include some element of the fantastic. While reading your short fiction, I've encountered ghosts (of course), artificial husbands, and gods. Have you always been interested in writing about the fantastic? What draws you to these subjects?

RACHEL SWIRSKY:  Interestingly, most of my fiction that has no fantastic element in it is about sex. I have always attributed this to the idea that I like writing about weird things. Fantasy and science fiction are a bit weird. Sex is very weird. I respect and enjoy realistic fiction, but I think there's something very interesting in the disjunctive and surprising, and that often the introduction of a fantastic (or science-fictional) element can allow us to get a fresher look at something we previously thought we understood. As an artist, if you're doing a sketch and you want to see if you've made an error, you can turn it over, and the new perspective of turning it upside down can often let you see what you couldn't previously perceive. I value art that can turn the world upside down, or even just make it a little strange.

UNSTUCK: What are you reading right now?

RACHEL SWIRSKY: I am reading romance novels! I was staying in a friend's hotel room this weekend while she was attending the Romance Writers Association convention in Anaheim. She went to business meetings; I went to Disneyland. Romance novels are not something I inherently understand, so I feel the need to poke at them and see what makes them vibrant, what makes them sing for people. I'd like to write one for much the same reason I like to work in a lot of different genres—there's something about the challenge of trying on a different set of expectations and constraints that I find exciting. Also, romance novels are such a huge part of what's out there in novels, and a lot of women read them like they'd eat calorie-free candy. There must be something going on. I haven't figured it out yet, though.

UNSTUCK: Where can our readers find more of your work?

RACHEL SWIRSKY: I have a collection of stories (many non-speculative, most about sex) called Through the Drowsy Dark, which came out from Aqueduct Press in 2010. All of my award-winning  or award-nominated stories are available online for free as well as in various anthologies. They're Google-searchable: "The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window" (fantasy), "The Memory of Wind" (retelling of the beginning of the Trojan war from Iphigenia's perspective), "Eros, Philia, Agape" (science fiction), and "Fields of Gold" (more fantasy about ghosts). "The Memory of Wind" and "Eros, Philia, Agape" are also available as Kindle singles for 99 cents. One of my favorite stories that readers who are interested in weird things like sex might like is "Defiled Imagination," which originally appeared in my collection but is also online in PANK Magazine

*   *   * 

Allie Werner is a graduate of Reed College. Before joining Unstuck as an Assistant Editor, she read slush for Tin House and interned with American Short Fiction. Her first published story appeared in Storyglossia last summer. She can be found online at A. is A. In her spare time she enjoys coffee and comic books, preferably simultaneously.