'Tell Me What You See:' An Interview with Author Terena Elizabeth Bell
Terena Elizabeth Bell's debut short story collection, Tell Me What You See, is a topical, emotional, and compelling selection that touches on a number of devastating events that have plagued the world in recent years. The author's experimental style is on full display in this challenging and thought-provoking book. This must-read will be available this December.
To learn more about the story behind the story, read A Good Book To End The Day’s interview with the author below.
Describe your journey to becoming an author in eight words or less.
I was born.
Tell us about Tell Me What You See and the inspiration behind the collection.
About Tell Me What You See:
Forthcoming Holiday 2022, Tell Me What You See (Whiskey Tit) is my debut fiction title. It contains ten experimental stories about the January 6th invasion on the US Capitol, the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, and other events from 2020-2021. Written in word and image, stories from the collection have been called “inventive and topical and fresh, emotional, chaotic, and important” by The McNeese Review and “timely, relevant, and interesting” by The Missouri Review. The title story, “Tell Me What You See,” is a 2021 New York Foundation for the Arts City Artist Corps winner.
Like most writers, I had a hard time creating early in the pandemic. It wasn’t so much that the desire wasn’t there as that I was required to work 70+ hours a week by a company that used the pandemic as an excuse to mandate overtime. Helicopters hovered over my apartment every day. My kitchen ceiling burst through, dumping the upstairs neighbor’s toilet water on my pandemic food. I don’t know who could write during that, but I still was a writer. All these words were just stuck inside me. Words about a chaotic world, a changing world. And since I couldn’t write, story poured out however it could — into watercolor paintings, pencil drawings, Vogue articles cut into letters then pasted into hostage-style messages. So when my employer laid me off in May 2020, I was already mixing visual media with written fiction, incorporating image inside story.
Then the January 6, 2021 invasion on the US Capitol happened. A good friend of mine is a congresswoman and I thought I saw her hiding on the House floor while traitors attempted violent overthrow on our nation. She wound up being okay, but I, her fiance, and my mother all initially thought the woman we saw was her.
I felt helpless. I couldn’t help my friend, I couldn’t help my country. The only thing I could eventually do was tell the story. “Tell Me What You See” isn’t just the title of the collection’s piece about the Capitol, it’s also my job. I write what I see. And over the past two years, fear, cowardice, and sedition is what I’ve seen. It was my duty to write about it.
But in what form? Because of where I was as an artist, I couldn’t write a non-experimental, “straight” story with rising and falling action, about a smart, young Congresswoman with democracy in her heart, coming to the Capitol for another day’s work. No. January 6th had no conclusion, no Freytag plot pyramid — just insanity. So how to write an insane story?
First thing was to stop trying to write about the Capitol. I knew that was my end goal, but instead I started thinking around forms for everything else going on, like a choose your own Covid adventure where no matter what decision you made, you died — or a graphic drawing the shape of Manhattan made from a singular cry for help translated into 20 languages. This playing with form opened my mind until one night it hit me. I saw a Snellen eye chart — the black letter pyramid with a gigantic E — and the Capitol laid over it. That’s how the title story “Tell Me What You See” came into being; after that, the rest of the collection just fell in place.
Is there any therapeutic benefit in writing about such timely and traumatic topics as those in Tell Me What You See?
No. Absolutely not. In fact, the exact opposite: In order to write about 2020, I had to emotionally relive it. The third piece in the collection, “#CoronaLife,” is about the early days of Covid quarantines in New York City. Written in texts, tweets, and emails, the whole story is as seen on the main character’s phone. While “#CoronaLife” is fiction, everything that happens in the story — like the presidential WHO address or store closures — is written on the same day that the events occurred in real life, which meant a lot of fact checking. Character actions are chronologically accurate as well, which meant re-reading personal records since everything in the story happened to me or another New Yorker I know. I had to write with this near-journalistic accuracy in order to capture the hecticness and hopelessness of that time.
Since “#CoronaLife” happens on a phone, that meant ensuring memes and photos were also true to date. I also had to comb through hundreds of images: people being put in refrigeration trucks, bodies being buried in mass graves — just like they were then. I had to revisit personal aspects from quarantine that I’d completely forgotten: I remembered we weren’t supposed to go outside, for example, but I’d forgotten we were told not to open our windows. In writing how this made my characters feel, I couldn’t help but remember how it’d made me feel and I spent maybe three days alone in my apartment doing nothing but looking at pictures and writing. My mind snapped right back in isolation mode and it took a few calls from my mother and a friend to make me put the laptop away and realize my characters were going through this, not me.
That said, even though these topics can be painful, I hope people will still read the collection. There’s been — I wouldn’t call it a big push, but rather a big fear to keep everything we went through out of modern literature, with literary journal editors rejecting anything pandemic-related. As many editors put it, they’re worried about “retraumatizing” readers. Re? Re?!? Are you kidding me? Many of us are still traumatized. Let’s be real about that. Not to mention, our job is to tell what we see and this is it, folks, whether we like it or not. If we remain afraid to tell our story, it’ll be forgotten. We will be forgotten. And that’s even worse.
What were the challenges in bringing the book to life?
Formatting. Three of the stories (“#CoronaLife,” “New York, March 2020,” and “Tell Me What You See”) are written in word and image: photographs and original drawings that serve as dialogue, memes and emojis as exposition. Six use alternative formatting like erasure and poetry-style spacing. Whiskey Tit was the first publisher I sent the full collection to, but a few journal editors balked at publishing individual pieces because of the formatting. And that part wasn’t easy for me either! I think I spent more time messing with margins for “#CoronaLife” than I did writing it! Three publishers, though — McNeese Review, streetcake, and Passages North — did accept early stories from Tell Me What You See before it was a collection. Knowing they could get the layout to work encouraged me to press forward with submitting the complete manuscript to Whiskey Tit, without which it wouldn’t be published today.
Do you have any other projects in the works at this time?
Yes! I am currently querying publishers with my second short story collection, Two Roads. Unlike Tell Me What You See, which contains largely experimental work set in NYC, the second title is a collection of traditional stories set in Kentucky and in Tennessee. I will come back to experimental eventually, though. The world’s still too crazy to write everything in rule of order.
What does literary success look like to you?
When a story I wrote accomplishes what I wanted it to.
Thanks so much for being part of the A Good Book To End The Day family! Is there
anything else you’d like to add?
I encourage you to read Tell Me What You See. It isn’t easy. But nothing important ever is. My job as a writer is to write what I see — that’s where the collection got its title. And a reader’s job is to be aware. If we collectively move on from the past two years reflecting on nothing, nothing will change. Escapist fiction is like potato chips. Read a little and everything’s fine. But if that’s all you read, if you never read anything meaty — a story that challenges you, a collection that makes you think — well, you’ll stop being able to think. And we all need to be able to do that for what lies ahead.
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