Victoria A. Brownworth on Her New Novel ‘Ordinary Mayhem’
Author: Paige Cohen
March 30, 2015
“Without secrets there would be no literature. How do you have Dostoevsky or Toni Morrison or any LGBT writing without secrets?”
Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning author, journalist, and editor of over twenty books. Winner of the 2013 Society of Professional Journalists awards and the Lambda Literary Award for Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic, as well as a finalist for seven of her other books, her lyrical prose exude with an honesty that resonates.
Victoria’s thought-provoking new novel, Ordinary Mayhem (Bold Strokes Books), is the story of a young photojournalist living in Manhattan, a woman who seeks out and shares the most difficult and necessary stories of her time—those that give voice to the tragic and unveil the darker side of human nature, often referred to as “controversial” by her peers. (You can read an excerpt of the novel here.) Though categorized as a horror story, in the author’s own words: “There are no vampire, zombies, revenants, or other supernatural creatures in this horror novel. Those perpetrating the horrors are on our side of the natural divide. And what could send greater chills up anyone’s spine than that?”
Victoria talked to Lambda Literary about her writing process, how her work as a journalist and her personal experiences impacted such, and her thoughts on the very human fascination with horror.
In the afterword of Ordinary Mayhem, you discuss the lives of the real women that are reflected in your novel—their stories and the horrors that they have experienced—that, although difficult to hear, need to and deserve to be told. Can you talk a little bit about your experience as a journalist and how it impacted your writing of this novel?
I hadn’t intended on being a journalist. From the time I was six, I wanted to be a doctor–that was my whole focus. I had always written, and my first book (of poetry) was published when I was in college, but I never thought I would be a writer. It never occurred to me that I should pursue that as a career. By the time I was eight, I knew all the tropical diseases and their causes; my role models were Albert Schweitzer and Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor in the U.S. I was working in a clinic at sixteen and expected to be in the developing world by the time I was in my early twenties, as a doctor, saving lives.
But then, I ended up being the star witness in the first federal police brutality trial in Philadelphia when I was about to graduate and everything changed. Then as now, the police were acquitted. And my journalistic career was born. I wrote an op-ed about my experience for the local daily newspaper for which I would later become a reporter. I considered changing to law school, but I realized that that wouldn’t offer me the advocacy role I had always expected to immerse myself in. I went into the domestic Peace Corps, and from there on, my life had a different focus.
Advocacy journalism became for me what I always thought medicine would be: the way to change the world one story at a time. I’ve been told that Ordinary Mayhem is not an easy read, and I get that: it’s not easy to tell the stories of life “out there” in the places many people never see.
Several of the key stories in Ordinary Mayhem are stories I covered as a reporter, like pesticide poisoning of the children of farm workers in California’s Central Valley. I interviewed a series of women who were survivors of the Rwanda genocide, which I had reported on extensively at the time. I have been active in anti-trafficking. So some of the stories in the novel are “ripped from the headlines”–headlines for stories I covered–and others are stories that I could easily have covered or stories that I have wanted to cover, but which no editor would take on at the time.
I have also been a victim of extreme physical violence myself, so I know about violence. I was raped in college by two men who stabbed me. And I was raped recently by a serial rapist in my neighborhood who nearly killed me. That recent rape utterly changed my life as it left me with serious scars and it happened at my own house, in broad daylight. And we are more resilient at seventeen than we are in middle age when it comes to violence, I think. My experience with law enforcement was terrible and shocked me. So that experience of violence reminded me that women are never safe, anywhere in the world. And I wanted to explore that reality–that the nice stranger who offers to help you may in fact be someone quite other than that.
In Ordinary Mayhem, I wanted to convey, through Faye’s eyes, how the endlessness of casual violence against women and girls in the world begins to tear apart those of us who cover the stories. Real world violence doesn’t come with a trigger warning–please quote me on that. Real life violence has nothing to do with what you see on Twitter or Pinterest or Facebook. Real life violence is the ugliest thing there is, and after it touches you, you are marked forever.
One theme that presents itself throughout the novel is this fascination people have with real life horror. This line resonated: “They think it will broaden them and expand them and put them more in touch with humanity, but they really don’t want to know because they can’t, you know, process it. They’re really just voyeurs…” This human fascination is what allows Faye to do the journalistic work that she does—to share the most difficult and terrifying stories of all. Through reading this novel, I experienced empathy for Faye and the women she writes about because I was experiencing their stories viscerally, through both of their eyes.
This made me wonder if we can ever get to a point where the majority of people are able to open themselves up, process the painful experiences of others and truly experience empathy. Where do you think this human fascination with horror comes from? In your opinion, is it possible to tell these stories in a way that provokes empathy as opposed to fascination?
This is a question no one asks. But really, it’s the question for our era. I don’t have the answer, though. I was born with empathy or learned it; I’m not sure if it is innate or learned. I was rescuing cats at six, I was working in a clinic at sixteen, and I was working in the domestic Peace Corps at nineteen. I was always aware of horror around me, and I always wanted to excise it from the world.
People send me videos of beheadings and eviscerations. I correspond with activists in Yemen and Syria, and they have sent me pictures I really would prefer never to have seen. I have scars on my own body from male violence, and I have met and interviewed women and some men with similar scars or worse ones on theirs.
The fact is, people want to see the carnage. I will never understand why. I think when it’s never happened to you, you want to see what it’s like. Well, the pictures don’t tell you. The pictures just inure you to what’s being done to other people because you cannot feel the fear or the pain or the trauma.
I think that’s why there are so many people threatening others on social media, especially Twitter and Tumblr. And every time I am threatened with rape or violence online, I have a frisson of fear and am reminded of the man beating and choking and raping and sodomizing me outside my own house. Why would anyone want to do that to anyone else?
There is also a theme of secrets here—never fully knowing another person, no matter how close to them you are. Faye is not only hurt by the revelations she has about the people closest to her, but she is also sometimes surprised that they are experiencing the world in a different manner than herself. I love how deeply you explore these very true characteristics of human nature. Can you talk more about secret-keeping and how it affects the relationships of your characters?
Ah, secrets. Without secrets, there would be no literature. How do you have Dostoevsky or Toni Morrison or any LGBT writing without secrets? We all grow up with familial secrets, some more damaging than others. Faye is an innocent at six when her parents are killed. But her innocence is shattered early on. Yet, she’s too young to absorb what it is that she’s seeing and experiencing in her grandparents’ house. When she moves to the home for girls and is taken under the wing of that very special nun, Sister Anne Marie, she is shielded from the horrors of where she came from. But then, other things happen to her, both at the home for girls and after she leaves it. Because we can never escape those secrets. The thing about Faye is she really does trust people, because the nuns were so protective of her. So she is often blind-sided by other people’s secrets, and it hurts her in ways she doesn’t quite know how to deal with.
What was your writing process like? Were there certain scenes that felt particularly challenging or that you enjoyed writing most?
The scenes from the DRC–the Democratic Republic of Congo–were the most challenging. Everything in those scenes is real. I wanted to give a keen sense of the incomparable beauty of the DRC. I think many Westerners think “Africa” and know nothing about it. It’s huge. The U.S., Russia and China can all fit in Africa and still have room to stuff in Europe. There are forty-seven countries, a thousand different languages and so many other differences between the nations.
I have written before about Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC, in other stories and in reporting in the 1990s. I think many people think of these countries as small and the cities and towns as small and everything as rural. Kinshasa has more people than New York City; it’s a major metropolis. That’s in part why juxtaposing what happened there to women–thousands of women–with the physical beauty and the twenty-first century-ness was so important. But those scenes are so violent, it was a little stomach-churning to write them.
I am also always considering the issues of race and class when I write about violence, so that is a challenge I give myself. All my fiction, like my non-fiction, features women of color as well as white women because for those of us in the world, intersectionality isn’t just a concept. Faye’s politics are never discussed, but she’s grown up in this multicultural world in New York and it’s a part of her. She’s white, but when her whiteness is raised, she is very aware of the contexts.
Also, there is no interracial violence in Ordinary Mayhem; the victims are all women, but the men who are violent are all violent with women of their own races and their own cultures, unless they are sociopathic, as one of the book’s main characters is. Because that’s how it mostly is, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. Violence against women is almost always perpetrated within one’s own class, one’s own race, one’s own culture. But violence against women is perpetrated everywhere. It has no borders.
The novel moves between past and present, slowly revealing the secrets of Faye’s childhood and adolescence as the present unwinds. The placement of the scenes flows naturally, but also manages to build a great deal of suspense. How did you decide how to structure the novel?
I’m not that disciplined a writer, actually, though I wish I was. I almost always write fiction for something I’ve been asked to contribute to–anthologies, usually. I don’t always have a plan, like I do for non-fiction. Ordinary Mayhem began as a short story for my editor Greg Herren for a collection he and Jean Redmann were doing, “Night Shadows.” I had this idea of the darkroom and a child whose parents had been killed and an adult photojournalist. I think the story just evolved that way. The short story won an Honorable Mention in Best Horror 2012, where I was listed right next to Stephen King, which was awesome. But the story was not finished for me. So when I went back to it to make it a novel, I had to figure out how to triple the length without disrupting what I had already written, which was perfect in the sense that it was exactly how I wanted it. That meant going back into various places and adding backstory for Faye as a child and adult and also, especially, situating her past more firmly so that she doesn’t just go from being six and moving to St. Cecilia’s to graduating from high school and heading off to NYU. I also had to establish her clearly as a lesbian, as having always been a lesbian and as having been raised by women to love women. That was essential to the concept of the novel to me.
The ending of the novel is fairly open. Can we look forward to a second book featuring Faye? Are you working on any new projects?
I am finishing a non-fiction book right now called Erasure: Silencing Lesbians, which will be out somewhere between the end of this year and the beginning of 2016. It’s an important book, as lesbians are slowly being elided from both our own communities and the larger society. Violence against lesbians is at an all-time high. Discrimination is extreme. Lesbians are at risk.
I’m also in several anthologies coming out this year, including a non-fiction one from Cleis Press for which I wrote a couple of pieces on lesbian history. I also have a young adult novel that will be out this year, Cutting.
I hadn’t intended the ending that evolved out of Ordinary Mayhem, but as Alice Walker wrote in an essay about writing The Color Purple, we don’t always have control over our characters and what they decide to do. I think it’s safe to say that there is more for Faye to do in her life–she has a series of loose ends to tie up as well as some women to whom she owes answers. I have another story in mind for her that I am actually quite eager to write. Also, the stories Faye is telling are not over by any stretch of anyone’s imagination–not mine, not hers, not ours collectively. As long as women are marginalized by our femaleness, there will be stories about that reality for me to tell, and also for Faye.