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Interview: R.S. Benedict on “All of Me”

Tell us a bit about “All of Me.”

“All of Me” is a story about violence: domestic abuse, sexual assault, slavery, exploitation, racism, imperialism, and self-harm. It’s definitely not a story for the faint of heart. As in much of my work, I use body horror as a metaphor for emotional turmoil or political injustice. In this case, it’s the fragmentation that comes from violence–how we compartmentalize different aspects of ourselves and other people in order to function in an unjust world.

But ultimately, it’s a story about healing. Isabel is a survivor. Over the course of the story, she learns how to take better care of herself and love herself. In order to get there, though, she has to suffer. It’s a lot like going through therapy, only with more dismemberment.

 

R.S. BenedictWhat was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

The first spark of inspiration came from Isabella Rossellini’s Green Porno series. She did a short film about starfish, and how they can reproduce asexually by removing an arm or a leg. There’s an alternate performance of the sketch in which she talks about how a modern woman has to be so many things (wife, mother, lover, worker, etc.) and how it would be so much easier if we could just clone ourselves like starfish to do all these different tasks.

The connection to mermaids and the associated mythology was obvious to me. I’m particularly interested in how folklore changes with time. Disney heavily sanitized Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” adding a happy ending and tossing out some of the grimmer aspects of the story. But Andersen’s story was a little whitewashed, too; in older tales, mermaids are dangerous temptresses who routinely drown men. At every step toward modernity, the mermaid becomes cleaner, safer, nicer, but also more powerless, more of a victim, like what “good girls” are supposed to be in a patriarchal society. I wanted to take mermaids back to their pre-Christian selves, as complicated, inhuman pagan monsters.

I also drew inspiration from the story of Rita Hayworth. In a way, her life mirrors that of Hans Christian Andersen’s mermaid: she underwent a painful transformation to try to get a shallow guy to fall in love with her, and it didn’t even work. Hayworth was originally named Margarita Cansino, and her father (who forced her to be his dancing partner in performances at Tijuana nightclubs when she was just twelve years old) was Spanish; that was too ethnic for 1930s Hollywood, so to get the really good roles, she had cosmetic surgery done to make her look whiter. And it worked–she got famous. But audiences didn’t really love or respect her as a full, complete person. She complained, “Men go to bed with Gilda, but wake up with me.” They wanted a fake, empty version of herself that didn’t represent who she really was. Her various husbands cheated on her, abused her, pimped her out, and exploited her for money. Servicemen put a sexy picture of her on an atomic bomb to drop on the Bikini Atoll, and she was infuriated–she didn’t want to be associated with a weapon of mass destruction. Her whole life, someone was always trying to turn her into something she wasn’t in order to make her more profitable, and a lot of the time she went along with it because she wanted desperately to be loved.

 

Was “All of Me” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

I didn’t set out to write about Puerto Rico when I began my first draft, but it found its way in there anyway. My mother’s side of the family is Puerto Rican, and I have family members who still live on the island. After Hurricane Maria hit we had a scary week in which we had no way to know if our family was safe. Cell phone service and the internet were both out, and we were hearing horrifying stories about people unable to get food or medicine or electricity. And while all this was going on, I kept hearing people say hateful, ugly things about how Puerto Rico didn’t deserve help after the storm because they aren’t “real” Americans (even though Puerto Ricans are US citizens who pay taxes and are eligible for the draft), or how Puerto Ricans deserve to suffer because they’re not capable of governing themselves (they don’t govern themselves–they’re subject to the whims of the US federal government but they cannot vote for president and they don’t have a voting member in Congress, and anyway the Taino were doing just fine before Columbus came along).

Originally, I put Isabel in Vieques because I’d visited it as a kid and was absolutely amazed by Mosquito Bay, which has gorgeous bioluminescent microorganisms living in the water. When you stir them up, they glimmer like stars. I thought that if magic existed somewhere on earth, it would be there. But I couldn’t talk about Vieques without mentioning Hurricane Maria–the little island was hit particularly hard by the storm.

Much of Puerto Rico’s history sneaked into the story without me realizing it until I was finishing the rough draft: the burning of the dead after Hurricane Maria, the Spaniards’ practice of taking sex slaves, the mass suicide of the indigenous Taino, the way sugar companies took over the land and got everybody hooked on junk food, the eugenics experiments the USA performed on the island’s women. Most Americans don’t know that the US government sterilized a third of Puerto Rico’s women in the 20th century; they only stopped doing it in the ’70s. They don’t teach you any of this stuff in school. Many Americans still don’t even know that Puerto Rico belongs to the United States. In a way, the whole thing became a story about Puerto Rico, and how the West abused it–they turned a utopia into a slave colony just to make money.

 

Can you tell us about any of the research you may have done for this story?

I’m an avid listener of Karina Longworth’s “You Must Remember This,” a podcast about Hollywood scandals in the first half of the 20th century. I drew heavily from her episode about Rita Hayworth, as well as her episode about Peg Entwistle, an actress who threw herself off the H in the Hollywood sign after her silent film career failed to take off. It’s that horrible incident that turned the sign into an iconic landmark.

I’m lucky enough to have relatives out in California. They helped a lot with the geographical details of the story. I had to completely change a few major scenes after my aunt pointed out that there’s pretty much no such thing as a remote, empty beach in southern California. Google Maps’ satellite view and street view features were a godsend, too. Just about every location in the story is a real, specific place, including the burger joint where Dan-O works.

Unfortunately, I didn’t do as much research as I should have into cell phone apps for the hearing impaired, as a reader politely pointed out. I’m pretty annoyed at myself for that.

 

What was the most difficult aspect of writing “All of Me,” and what was the most fun?

Balancing the different perspectives of the different characters was tough. I had to be very careful about how much information I fed the reader. Giving away too much would make the story dull, and plus I wanted readers to experience the confusion and disorientation that comes with being a public figure. (That came from the life of songwriter Dory Previn, who first found out her husband was cheating on her because she saw it on the news.) But I had to do this without confusing readers too much. I didn’t want the story to become impossible to follow.

I had an absolute blast coming up with ways for Isabel to engage in trashy mid-2000s culture, though: ironic trucker hats, Juicy sweatpants, bad driving, and horrible movies. I’m very happy with the fake movies titles I came up with. Anyone can immediately tell exactly how bad Donde Esta la Biblioteca? is going to be.

 

What are you working on now?

I am working on a story about an ugly duckling. It was supposed to be a short story, but it’s turning into something much bigger than I expected. That’s how these things usually go for me.

 

“All of Me” appears in the March/April 2019 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1903.htm

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Amazon UK (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O

Click on R.S. Benedict’s photo to visit her website.

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