The past anchors us to the present. I point out this melancholy fact now because I have to explain a little backstory first. See, I wrote the characters in my manuscript, Women Float, while a senior at Kenyon College. As in, the late 1990s. As in, the 20th century, before this latest turn-of-the-century time warp. So, my book’s characters have their feet sunk deep in my own grunge, Kurt Cobain and Gen X sensibilities, despite the novella’s birth just six months ago.
What I’m trying to say is that I don’t know how to explain the genesis for the strong female characters in Women Float without explaining myself. I mean, I wrote the book, yes, but it was so long ago now. I have been asked to explain what literary women inspired my own heroines and I don’t know how to do that without getting a little biographical on you.
So, please indulge me as I, the author-ess, the potentially strong female who while in college birthed a whole cast of little women masquerading as fake assemblages of words on a page, try to conjure up the woman I was when I wrote Women Float. A few notes on that bygone self: 5’6”, same as now, hair brown-ish, eyes blue, thrift store clothes, small obsession with ska music (and all of Moon Records), playing trumpet in a ska band in the middle of Ohio at Kenyon College, English and creative writing major (of dubious acclaim, see fellow classmate John Green, mega Young Adult author and web rockstar for an example of a now creative writing Wunderkind), year abroad in England for two previous semesters, adept at auditioning for plays and not getting in (see Joshua Radnor, as in How I Met Your Mother for Kenyon classmates from the time who did get into plays), lifeguard, homesick for Carpinteria, California, during most of my time in Ohio.
Okay, it’s coming back to me now. To understand how I found Win, the closeted gay pastry chef and main character for my own book, I can see that she was born out of the character Jeanette in Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson. She is young and attracted to women and trying really hard to fit in, to just be what others want her to be. Janie, Win’s absentee mother, is everywoman in Shakespeare, revealed as much by what is said about them, as what isn’t. Janie is also a trickster and a failure, like a Native American coyote spirit or like the character of the same name, Janie, in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, one of my favorite books (how about that name for a direct influence, an arrow point of literary lineage.)
I remember now that for Women Float, I deliberately wanted to tell a story that felt important in its smallness, in its interiority. In that way, I credit Bananna Yoshimoto for her book Amrita and Haruki Murakami (though he’s not a woman.) Both of these Japanese writers showed me that plot could be delicate and that characters could be important in their relative anonymity.
I see now that I created my characters as antidotes to the Great White Male Canon, all the books I waded through at that time to earn my degree. I wrote young Win, her flaky mom, Janie, Win’s love interest, Mia, and even the stoned waitress, Rachel, into existence to try to begin the difficult process of fleshing out the world of fiction from the eyes of women alone, with men as a backdrop, a prop, a joke, the way women stupidly held trays of tea for men in so many books I’d been forced to read back then. Even if a few authors could be allowed, like Jane Austen, my professors seemed to emphasize that the real books were by real men, featuring men and about men. So I wrote my world, and I wrote my people into the book Women Float.
What I’m really trying to say is that unpacking my past literary influences is like re-listening to the 1980 song “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads. “Time isn't holding us, time isn't after us. Time isn't holding us, time doesn't hold you back.” I play a video of the song on repeat and marvel at the retro beauty of David Byrne’s stiff and stylized dance moves and jumbo-shoulder-pad suit. “Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.” I hear the words anew, and for the first time they sound more matter-of-fact than tragic. My book, my characters, these women: I now see them as literary inheritors of the same set archetypes rather than game-changers. But trying to capture the exact meaning behind Women Float and its characters, years after it was written is like taking a still photograph of moving water. It’s possible, but so much of the essence is lost. I am anchored to the past, to those characters, but I can’t trace or re-remember who I was then, or what I was thinking when I wrote them. Like me, they’re just same as they ever was.
Maureen Foley is an artist, writer and teacher who grew up in Carpinteria, California. Foley received a Masters of Fine Art in Prose from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. Her stories and poems have appeared in the New York Times, Wired, Skanky Possum, Santa Barbara Magazine, Santa Barbara Independent and elsewhere. Her newest novella, Women Float, was published by the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. She now lives on an avocado ranch in Southern California with her husband, their daughter and their dog.