August 29, 2023 |

Our Conversation with AJ Bermudez

AJ Bermudez has come a long way since she was five-years-old and selling to her parents ‘novels’ folded from single sheets of paper. Her first book, Stories No One Hopes Are About Them, winner of the 2022 Iowa Short Fiction Award and 2023 Lambda Award Finalist, is as every bit witty and real as she. Each short story from the collection stands tall on their own, but together they hold the power to challenge political and collective norms and question authority and privilege.

Just as she balances her days between Los Angeles and New York, the limelight of Bermudez’s career is not only taken up by her work as an author, but also as a filmmaker. Her writing has appeared in literary publications such as The Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, McSweeney’s, Chicago Quarterly Review, and has won her an extensive list of awards. Meanwhile, her work in film has also racked up their fair share of accolades including has being featured at the LGBT Toronto Film Festival and Sundance Film Festival and has also racked up their fair share of accolades.

My first introduction to Bermudez was reading her short story, “Octopus,” in Story #11 (summer 2021). The story explores themes of content and power dynamics in an environment that is supposed to invoke nostalgia and childlike wonder. Because of her multifaceted areas of work, I was eager to talk to Bermudez and learn more about her creative processes and the intersecting avenues of writing and filmmaking.

In my interview with Bermudez, we revisit “Octopus,” talk about the process of writing her first book, discuss how humor is essential when writing about (and experiencing) the world, and explore what’s next in store for her.

This interview was conducted by Selah Griffin, and has been lightly edited for clarity.

 

INTERVIEWER

In the acknowledgements of your book, you mentioned that your parents have been a significant source of support throughout your career. Were they who encouraged you to start writing in the first place? And in what ways have they influenced your writing and creativity as well?

AJ BERMUDEZ

That’s a great question. That’s such a heavy question. When I was small, my parents were both a really strong influence in my life and a big part of my life was reading and writing from a really, really small age. My parents would read to me and they would put books in my hands. My toys were mostly a workstation with pens, pencils, markers, and papers. I would write little books that they would read. At one point, I think maybe around age five or six, I was creating novels from folded in half sheets of paper with my own cover art and I think selling them back to my parents. But yeah, my parents were very encouraging of intellect and literacy, although they were, in some ways very, very different from me and very different from one another.

I’m the first person in my family to attend the four year college. My father drove a truck like we’re not a family of creative industry. I think that the presence of my parents has certainly been a really strong force in my writing, both their generosity and presence in my life, and also obviously their felt absence separately in the years since, you know?

I think loss can be very transformative for writers and presence can also be very transformative. Those are adverse forces that are equally powerful in my writing.

INTERVIEWER

Stories No One Hopes Are About Them, your debut book, is a winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award. Can you talk a bit about the writing process and maybe what was unexpected about it versus what came easily?

BERMUDEZ

Yeah, definitely. So those stories are all over the map. Anyone who’s read the collection will know that it almost feels like it barely goes together, but it absolutely is a collection, however subtly. Some stories in the collection came very, very quickly and easily, and some were very, very hard earned and teased out over many months. It’s interesting assembling a collection, as anyone attempting it knows. Each story is an entity in and of itself, and then the collection becomes an entity as well. It’s like bodies within bodies. It was really, really exciting to develop a narrative around the collection and to begin to recognize those confluences between different stories, many of which seem very disparate, I think, but that ultimately have a larger impact together than separately.

So, yeah, it’s a fucking weird collection. I’ll be the first to say it. But, the process of putting that together was really a pleasure and very driven by discovery.

INTERVIEWER

I know you said it kind of loosely put together, but the book definitely has themes on exploitative and oppressive powers as well exposes people’s own entitlements and ignorance. Why are you kind of drawn to these subjects and why do you think is it important to write about them?

BERMUDEZ

Yeah, these are tremendously important issues to me personally, they are important issues politically, collectively, and communally. Who gets to do what, or say what, and how? Who sets rules and plays within them? These are forces that impact us all and I think that, right now, there’s also a tremendous amount of visibility around privilege in some very public ways, but it’s also something that’s very personal and very individuated. And so I think that, for me, one thing that often drives stories that I’m attracted to reading and writing is connecting the large scale to the very, very specific and the very personal to much larger pieces. So, tethering those macro and micro elements is a really important job in literature right now. And acknowledging who has privilege and who has power and what we do with it is crucial, not only with within literature, but as humans.

So, I don’t anticipate those themes being something I get tired of.

INTERVIEWER

You live in both Los Angeles and New York, and you constantly travel between the two. Your new book has a heavy emphasis on environment in place. The stories are set in India and Antarctica and everywhere in between. Is travel something that’s important to you and are there any effects that you hope including the sort of worldliness in your writing has on readers?

BERMUDEZ

Yeah, I think discomfort is important. I think that being alive and living life and being uncomfortable is really, really important for writers. I do think that intersections between people and place is crucially important to me. Environment as characters is crucially important. And also I think environment can open avenues for writers to explore conditions of otherness and privilege, as we were talking about, in ways that’s not always possible, in purely theological terms. Bringing in elements of environment is both, thematically and aesthetically, important to me. It’s just filled with possibility for exploring, for exploring otherness and especially the smallness of humanity.

INTERVIEWER

I do wanna talk a little bit about “Octopus” specifically. Story published Octopus in it’s 11th issue in the Summer of 2021, and it’s now, I think the third story in your book. Can you explain kind of a little bit what it’s about, what it meant to you when you initially wrote it, and whether or not your thoughts kind of had changed in the past few years in regards to the piece?

BERMUDEZ

Yeah. I was so thrilled when Story picked this one up and it’s one of my favorite stories in the collection. It was such a fun, wonderful collaboration with Michael, preparing it for the issue. I really love this story, and although, I have never been a Florida theme park princess, the stuff in this story still really hits me in the gut.

It had been a long time since I’d revisited that story, and so I took a very fast look at it before we spoke today, and there are certain themes that you wish would just go away over the years. It would be great if themes like consent and power dynamics in a workplace were better than when the story came out. I don’t know that they are. It’s always interesting to revisit one’s own work. These are characters that I would spend even more time with. One thing I will say that I really love about this story, and that I think is perhaps partly incidental and fortunate, is that this story for me is very much about place. There are some really strongly aquacultural themes in this story, between the oysters and the octopus. And, to me, those are sort of like the most heartbreaking pieces of pieces of this story. It’s kind of a queasy story. Everything from the minimum wage to the crushed octopus, no spoilers, sorry. But it’s, you know, very much about that confluence between anthropological and ecological forces told in a very small, quiet, simple story with a relatively uneducated protagonist who is just trying to get by. And I believe all those things can be true at once and it’s important to hold those elements in touch.

INTERVIEWER

As dark as that story might be, it’s also laced with such absurdity and humor, as some of the other stories in your book also are. Can you say anything about writing in this style? I feel like it’s so hard to get humor right, and it seems to come very naturally to you.

BERMUDEZ

That’s so kind to say. And, God, that’s such a good question. I think that life, I’m not the first writer to feel this way, life is so tragic and horrendous that to approach it without a sense of the comedic is probably near fatal. I come from a legacy of very, very, very dark humor, and it’s just wonderful and it’s also in some ways an acquired taste for many. But it also, I think, is one of the only honest ways of dealing with the world. Not only reality, but competing realities. The world is absurd. To look outside is to take your life into your own hands and I think humor is not only a tactic, but an essential one. It’s certainly crucial to the writing that I love to read, I hope it stays central to the writing that I do.

INTERVIEWER

In addition to being a writer, you’re also a filmmaker. How have these two mediums influenced each other, if at all, in your own work?

BERMUDEZ

I’m a major believer in cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary writing. I think it’s tremendously valuable for writers to stretch themselves, sort of in every respect. And I think there are a lot of opportunities for discovery and growth by dabbling in different genres. Every time I work in literary writing, it teaches me something about screenwriting, and every time I work in screenwriting, it teaches me something about literary writing.

I think that that our conception of types of writing in very narrow lanes is largely mistaken. And I feel very fortunate to work in both of those areas, to be writing books and also films, and I don’t love one over the other. It’s definitely a very polyamorous relationship with different types of writing. But I think they feed each other, certainly. Even just logistical dynamics of filmmaking and screenwriting are valuable for literary writers. Everything from understanding an invitational and collaborative approach to the work, to the immediacy and efficiency that is required in film writing. It’s come to a point where, while there are so many differences between those areas of writing, they’ve almost come to feel interdependent for me in terms of craft and strategy.

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk a bit how you got into the filmmaking industry at all?

BERMUDEZ

Yeah. I’d been playwriting and directing a little and then I moved to LA, my partner’s an actor, and I very swiftly sort of moved from playwriting into screenwriting. And that began kind of recreationally. I had a very low glamor job reading scripts for a studio. And the, very kind, producer who had hired me as an underpaid script reader, who is still a very dear friend, we’ve worked together since, thought that my comments on the scripts I was reading were snarky and delightful enough that he asked if I would like to pitch something to the studio. So I pitched a film and that’s how I got started in screenwriting. Screenwriting is one of those weird things where like it really is just years and years of uncompensated ultra hard work and also being available for opportunity.

INTERVIEWER

So, I understand that Stories No One Hopes Are About Them was a lot of work and I’m sure it took a lot of time and effort, but I was wondering whether you already have another project in the works and if you’re able to talk about it or not. Writing or film.

BERMUDEZ

I have both. I’m working on my second collection of short fiction, tentatively titled, The God of Ugly Things. I’m very grateful for the support of the Steinbeck Fellowship on that project right now, and we’ll be working on that project over the coming year. I’m working on my first novel. I won’t say too much about it, but it is as dark, and funny and terrible, and lovely as one would hope. I’m really enjoying the process of that. I recently co-wrote, before the strikes, a film that has finished shooting and is now on post-production, called My Dead Friend Zoe, which I’m really, really excited about. There’s a lot of darkness, and love, and empathy, and queerness, and just all kinds of that great stuff in that project as well.

 

Selah Griffin is a journalism major at Denison University.