November 23, 2020 |

Our Conversation with Bess Winter

Bess Winter is the author of “Machines of Another Era,” which appeared on our site in 2016. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Eastern Illinois University, where she’s Editor-in-Chief of Bluestem. Her debut collection, Machines of Another Era, will be released by Gold Wake Press in 2021.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell me a little bit about how you first started writing?

BESS WINTER

My story of how I first started writing is a little bit embarrassing because I’m one of those people who say that I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was three. When I was a kid, in elementary school, my friends and I decided that we were all going to submit stories to Spider Magazine—which was a national kids magazine. We just did it for fun. We were four girls who did everything together, and didn’t expect much of it.

An acceptance from Spider Magazine arrived at my home when I was eight years old. My mom taped it to my door with a little question mark on it, asking, What the heck is this? You’re sending submissions out? It made me think that maybe I could be a writer. I was one of that kind of pretentious kid in high school who carried around a notebook and worked on my journal. Creativity was always something I was interested in. It sort of morphed.

Then I got really serious about writing during and after undergrad. I went to a writing program for a while. I was always really careerist when it came to this, which is embarrassing to say. [Laughs] So it always, in some ways, felt like the only option.

INTERVIEWER

Do you remember what your story was about when you were eight?

WINTER

It was set in a garden, and it was about these anthropomorphic flowers who were concerned about the groundhog or mole that was digging up their garden. It was like The Wolf at the Door but it was the Mole at the Door.

INTERVIEWER

What was it about writing that drew you in so much?

WINTER

I was an only child, so I had a lot of time by myself. Writing to me was a lot like playing. I write a lot about things like dolls. People always say, Oh, creepy dolls! But I actually find them to be really interesting historical objects that tell us a lot about women, children, and class. When I was a kid, though, I wasn’t thinking about that. I just liked dolls. It was just another way of having solitary imagination time that was really rich, and I was in control of it. I think that aspect of solitary play was partly what drew me to it. And probably what still draws me to it.

INTERVIEWER

What I found to be so powerful in your story “Machines of Another Era” was this idea of history, timelessness, and otherworldliness. Even the character of García Márquez himself becomes ghostlike, though he’s still alive. What resonates with you so much about timelessness?

WINTER

That’s a really good question. I would hesitate to call myself a historical fiction writer, but what I’m doing fundamentally is a kind of historical fiction, except that rather than immersing myself in one time, I’m more interested in how time actually doesn’t exist. It’s a human construct. We live with our past all the time. We see what impacts have the past had on us, and how is the past repeated or reflected in the present and the future.

Why do we write? In some ways it’s to stop time for a little while. I think that’s what interests me. Can I break down those barriers for this moment and be a time traveler, and make my reader a time traveler in some ways.

INTERVIEWER

That’s the other beautiful thing I find in your work. Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint the exact time. It creates this fascinating human fluidity. How do you first develop these ideas? How do they come to you?

WINTER

They usually start with something very small. Like I said, I’m really into material objects. And so a lot of it starts from thinking, Oh, I’m fascinated with this object. I love to research things because growing up as an only child, that was how I entertained myself. So I wrote one story about the first talking doll that was ever invented. It was invented by Thomas Edison. It seems like a very weird thing for him to invent.

INTERVIEWER

I had no idea.

WINTER

It was a total flop. They were terrifying, horrible dolls that didn’t work, and that was fascinating to me. I started from there and then saw what ripple effect that might have.

There was another story in an old newspaper article from the Toronto Star. I grew up in Toronto, so I’m interested in Toronto history. And something blossomed from there. So, it usually starts with some bit of history or some fact or a story that catches in my mind that I can’t let go of—and then the rest of it, I make up.

INTERVIEWER

Do you find that the characters come naturally with the object?

WINTER

They do, sort of. I don’t think about it very much. They do just come naturally. There are people that seem to be associated with certain things.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any favorite objects that you’ve found?

WINTER

Oh, there are so many. Not all of them are objects that I write about, but “collector” is a pretty good word for it. My mom was in the antiques world in Canada, so I got dragged to all kinds of antiques shows and things. Her boyfriend at the time was an appraiser on Antiques Roadshow, so I had these things in my mind. The things that I collect right now– I can even look around my house here and see them.

I have some nineteenth-century dolls. I know that freaks people out whenever I say I collect dolls. There aren’t that many of them. I have old paperweights that are interesting to me. These are glass paperweights that were made with glass cast-offs in the nineteenth century. They have little designs suspended inside of them. I’m interested in small things that you can hold in your hand. Domestic things. Things that were useful to people at one time.

The other thing that’s really cool when you go to antique stores is to collect cabinet cards, which are people’s family photos that have been separated from their family albums or collections. It’s sad to me, but there are such interesting ones, so I love to collect those too and file them away. They could be a character in the future.

INTERVIEWER

That’s something I feel when I go to antique stores—the idea of carrying on someone’s legacy or memory. I don’t know if you experience that too. Can you tell me a bit about that process of handling an object that was once used by a real person, and then writing about it?

WINTER

Yeah, that’s absolutely central to writing about objects. They outlive us, and that’s what’s so fascinating about these objects that we make, and leave, and hold so close to ourselves. They mean so much to us.

That glass paperweight once meant a lot to somebody. It’s a really good question: What do I owe that person?

I think I just owe them a good story. That this object is still inspiring something and it’s not just sitting on a dusty shelf, forgotten. I’m the kind of person who loves that movie The Brave Little Toaster because I often feel like I can’t abandon this broken toaster!

INTERVIEWER

That’s a beautiful point. Writing is also something that we often think outlives people, and in a lot of ways it does. So does other art. I read that one of your pieces was made into a performance at one point.

WINTER

Oh, yes, that was a long time ago. It was a piece that was published in my university literary journal, and it’s something that I don’t think I would ever want anybody to see now. [Laughs] But yeah, it was made into an opera piece.

INTERVIEWER

I love that idea of transcending art forms. What was that like?

WINTER

It was wild that somebody wanted to do that. It was at my school, and this person who did this, actually, he ended up going to NYU and I think he works on Broadway now. He was playing around with interdisciplinary projects and that sort of stuff. It was really nice.

I like that aspect of creating—when you know someone else is actually reading what you’ve made, and then you get to see how they read it. You get to see into their mind a little bit. That’s really exciting. I teach playwriting and screenwriting to students, and I think that’s maybe the biggest benefit of writing a play. You are only one small part of this process. You have the privilege now, if you can let go of that control, of seeing other people open up parts of this work that you didn’t know existed. When I was in school, I was a playwriting minor. That was hard. It was hard to learn how to let go. But it’s really rewarding if you can do it.

INTERVIEWER

Have you found that having experiences with theater has influenced your writing?

WINTER

Yeah, definitely. I think anyone who is writing fiction should learn how to act because you learn about human nature. You learn about the smallest atomic structure of stories and why people do things. I think writing is acting, to a certain degree. You have to play every role and inhabit every aspect of that work and understand it.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever found readers who have brought something completely new to light in your works, or surprised you with their interpretations?

WINTER

Usually, the reader who surprises me the most in her interpretation is my mother. [Laughs] She uses it like tarot or something. She’ll say, “I didn’t know you cared so much about this or that.” And I’ll say, “I don’t, mom! That’s a metaphor.”

With other people, I wish I had that type of interaction more with readers, but I don’t get to hear their interpretations that much, or at least they don’t tell me. But I would be open to hearing it.

INTERVIEWER

Yeah, I imagine it’s especially hard now to have that contact with people. I’m sure it’s also interesting to know that they’re out there somewhere. They could be just walking around, maybe having read your work.

WINTER

It’s nice to know. I think we sometimes forget as writers that anyone is reading our work. Or at least I do. So it’s always a bit of a shock. I think, Oh my gosh, you’ve read that?

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of characters being something you embody, how do you create such timeless and complex characters? “Machines of Another Era” is somewhat short and somewhat otherworldly, and yet every character has such concrete characteristics.

WINTER

I loved the way you referred to the characters as ghosts. I think, in a way, they’re all like ghosts that we inhabit for a little while. It comes back to acting. A gesture or a moment of truth can do a lot to flesh out one character. I don’t think we have to actually do that much to make a character seem alive. They just need to seem hyper-alive for a moment, and then you can let it go for a while, and then you’ll have another moment. So that’s what I try to do—find those little moments of humanity and isolate them. And then the next time I need that character to seem alive, they’ll get inhabited again.

INTERVIEWER

I think that’s part of what I noticed in your work. It’s those very specific details that allude to someone’s history, which is so much fun as a reader. It feels like you’re in on the secret.

WINTER

That’s what I enjoy too. This goes back to erasing time or thinking of time as a continuum. I don’t think people change that much. They could be living a thousand years ago, but still we’re not that different from them. We have these fundamental human desires.

My husband and I went to England a few years ago because I had a grant to do some research. Have you been to London? We went to the Tower of London and to Hampton Court [Henry VIII’s palace]. And all of these people who seem so dusty and ancient, when you go to the places where they were and you see his suit of armor from when he was seven and they still have it, they come alive and seem so human. It closes that time gap. Four hundred years doesn’t seem like very long ago at all.

I think partly it goes back to objects and experiences. I spend a lot of time reading about things and going out to experience things. I miss going to museums. That’s part of what helps me think about character too.

INTERVIEWER

Absolutely. I love reading about old graffiti, where people would write the same things that we do today. I went to the Alamo a few years ago, and saw that one of the men there had been reading Hamlet before the battle. They still had the book there. It truly does close that time gap. It’s interesting to look back on history and realize that in so many ways, they were us.

WINTER

I love that. I love the old graffiti, and places where you see messy humanity that’s been left behind. In the town of Bath, they have Bath Abbey, where all of these really important people were buried for years under the floor, with plaques dedicated to them. And they’re so human and interesting. It’s what we do now on Facebook. Someone might say, Oh I loved her, she did so many things and really loved dogs… But it says that in stone.

There was one in particular that basically said: He was a real jerk. He was hard to get along with. You either love him or leave him. But he was a person with principles. And there’s something about that which seemed so alive and real.

INTERVIEWER

Do you believe in ghosts or the supernatural?

WINTER

In certain ways, I do. I don’t think that ghosts are creatures that haunt us but I do think that energies from the past can still exist. I think that there are certain historical places that are really charged with energies that haven’t escaped them. I really vividly remember as a kid going to where the Battle of Little Bighorn was, and how palpable that energy was there. It felt like the battle was still going on. So in that sense, I believe in ghosts.

INTERVIEWER

Have any of those places inspired some of your work?

WINTER

Definitely. I love historical places. I’ve been trying to write about the Shaker Community for years. They were a religious community that came over from England, started by a woman in the 1700s named Mother Ann. They were very egalitarian. In order to join the Shakers, you had to give up your worldly goods, usually to the Shakers, and then come live with them. Men were very separate from women. There was no sex—which is why there are practically no Shakers now. They were an agrarian community. Everybody had a job. They took in a lot of orphans and raised them, and they made things to sell. Brooms, furniture. They were also a haven for escaped slaves who could live as equals in Shaker communities, even in places where slavery was still very active, like Kentucky.

I’m fascinated by the fact that they were started by a woman. Even after Mother Ann died, she lived in their memories and they revered her. Later, there were these teenage girls who made some beautiful pieces of art that they said were inspired by Mother Ann. They said that Mother Ann appeared to them and gave them the inspiration.

So, talk about ghosts. They were haunted in many ways. And talk about material culture. They made such beautiful things. Their buildings are perfectly balanced and there’s something so aesthetically wonderful about them. I’ve been fascinated by them, but haven’t found a way into writing about them. I’ve visited a lot of Shaker villages over the years.

When I was a kid, at the same time I saw Little Bighorn, there was a historical mansion in Billings, Montana. If any place is haunted, it’s this one. It was owned by this family that eventually dwindled down to one sister who lived there until her death in the 80s. Eventually, it was just her in one room with her TV, in love with her cello teacher, in this huge dark mansion. As soon as we went into that house, it captured my imagination. It definitely seemed like the haunted mansion. So places like that do inspire me and stick with me.

INTERVIEWER

It’s a really similar experience for me. I felt that way when I visited Gettysburg. You can just feel it in some places. It’s like an imprint has been left there.

WINTER

I’d love to go see Gettysburg. A friend of mine, Christopher Kempf, just wrote a series of poems about his time in Gettysburg. It’s all about how you can still feel the history.

INTERVIEWER

It’s a fascinating place. I think you’d love it there. And speaking of publications, congratulations on your upcoming debut collection! That’s so very exciting. What has been your experience with pulling together that collection and writing that collection?

WINTER

It was a long time coming. I think the oldest story goes back about eight or nine years. It was a process of swapping out stories, because I had a collection finished when I completed my MFA—which I would never show to anybody now. As I kept writing and publishing stories after, I would swap out stories in my collection. Then I finally arrived at something that felt like it was ready to be sent out. It was basically a process of documenting my growth as a writer. Probably in a way that no other book will ever be.

INTERVIEWER

Your story “Machines of Another Era” is also the title of your collection. What inspired you to take that title as the overarching name?

WINTER

If I’m remembering this correctly, the collection had another title. It wasn’t very good. But how did I get this title? I don’t remember. It’s been “Machines of Another Era” for so long now. It felt right. It felt like the right name for all the thematic stuff that’s bubbling up in all of the different stories. It stood out in that way.

INTERVIEWER

And now we’re living right now during a time that very clearly repeats history, even if we just look at the pandemic in 1918. Can you tell me a bit about how the pandemic has affected your writing or writing process?

WINTER

You know, I don’t think it’s really had that much of an effect on my writing process, because in some ways, I always write like there’s a pandemic. I’m a bit of a homebody. But I will say, it’s been harder to focus on any one thing. Not just writing. This is a very important and weird American time. Why should you focus on an assignment when our democracy hangs in the balance? So, in that sense, lately I’ve been focusing on the book that’s coming out and trying to promote it. It’s easier to do tasks that can be finished than to work with an ongoing intellectual task right now. If I can mail this book, that feels pretty good.

INTERVIEWER

Definitely. It’s such an important thing right now to get art out there. Have you been thinking about how this moment in time will be perceived as history later?

WINTER

It’s so hard to know when we’re in it. Virginia Woolf said something to that effect—that nobody understands anything when they’re in the moment. I think it’s very hard to know. All we can do right now is observe right now as artists and store it away. I do admire people who have already come out with things about it like Zadie Smith, with her book of essays. But I won’t claim to be as prolific or brilliant as Zadie Smith. [Laughs] So I’m just waiting.

INTERVIEWER

Waiting is also good. This was wonderful, Bess. Thank you so much for meeting with me.

WINTER

Thank you, Sarah.

Sarah Hume is a junior at Denison University, where she studies International Studies and Narrative Journalism. Photo courtesy of Charlie Dave; view more of his work on Flickr. Visit Bess’s website now to preorder a copy of Machines of Another Era.