When I interviewed Gwen Kirby about her debut collection, Shit Cassandra Saw (Penguin Books, Jan.), my first questions were simple: Who are you? And where did you come from? She laughed and said, “San Diego,” but of course, that’s not what I was asking. The questions were generated by her explosive, original, fearless, funny, on-the-money feminist story collection that delivers on the promise of its outrageous cover.
Kirby tells me that books were always her favorite thing, and though she has been writing “since she was a kid,” she felt intimidated, “because it seemed that all the writers I was reading had these grand experiences and interesting lives.”
After graduating from college in 2007, she worked 10-hour days in publishing as a production editor until 2011, when she enrolled at John Hopkins for an MFA, wanting to dedicate time to writing and to get some formal training. She followed the MFA with the PhD program in creative writing at the University of Cincinnati, “a spectacular four years,” graduating in 2018.
In 2014, she began working summers at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference at the University of the South, and became associate director for programs and finance in 2019 (she also teaches creative writing courses). Her association with Sewanee began at 17, when she used her high school graduation money to attend the Young Writers conference there. And Sewanee was how she met her agent, the Gernert Company’s Sarah Burnes.
“I’m a regular at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference,” Burnes tells me. “My first year, 2015, this nice young woman picked me up at the airport, and again for the next few years. It’s an hour and a half drive from Nashville; we talked about feminism and historical fiction.”
Fast forward, and Burnes is in a cab on the Brooklyn Bridge when she gets an email from Guernica magazine with the Oct. 18, 2017, issue, and sees a story by Gwen E. Kirby, “Midwestern Girl Is Tired of Appearing in Your Short Stories.” Burnes thought, “Oh, Gwen...” and clicked through to read it. “By the end,” Burnes says, “I was shaken. She knows how to tell a story, build a character. She opens a whole new window on literary culture and being a woman in America.”
Kirby says the inspiration for her story was a man reading his story at an AWP conference featuring an unnamed woman character from the Midwest. “I started thinking about all the stories with unnamed woman characters, nameless faceless women, there to pat men on the back. I left thinking about a superhero who could fix this script: Midwestern Girl!”
Burnes got in touch with Kirby, who sent her more stories, and they started working together that year. “I loved all the stories,” Burnes says. “Gwen’s experimentation in form follows feeling and theme, and she has a great response to what’s going on.”
For instance: “A Few Normal Things That Happen a Lot,” which opens, “A woman walks down the street and a man tells her to smile. When she smiles, she reveals a mouthful of fangs. She bites off the man’s hand, cracks the bones, and spits them out, and accidentally swallows his wedding ring, which gives her indigestion.”
It was the time of the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings, September 2018, when, Burnes says, “all the young women I knew were going bananas. I sent the story to Rob Spillman at Tin House and said, ‘You have to publish this for Halloween!’ ” It appeared in the Oct. 31, 2018, issue.
The fang lady story, Kirby says, was the rare one with a concrete origin. “I’m usually more about hope and joy and humor,” she says, “but I was listening to the Kavanaugh hearings and getting angry and thought, ‘What if a woman could walk through the world and not have to take it? What if she had laser eyes and fangs?’ I wanted to get at a point—having the fantasy and needing the fantasy is also disturbing.”
Settings are another thing that inspire Kirby. Have you ever heard of an unclaimed baggage store? Kirby tells me about one in rural Alabama surrounded by smaller knockoff stores. What, she thought, would it be like to be a teenager working in one of the “shit unclaimed baggage stores,” the only game in town? Read about it in “Casper” and a whole new world will open up for you. And for sheer delight, I recommend “Jerry’s Crab Shack: One Star.” In fact, just read the book cover to cover. There’s not one story that doesn’t captivate.
Burnes sent out the manuscript in May 2020, early on in the pandemic. “We have a philosophy at Gernert that you can’t time the stock market or the publishing market,” Burnes says. “There was lots of admiration, but it was Penguin editor Margaux Weisman who bid and won world English rights a month later.”
“Gwen’s book was one of the first I could read during the pandemic,” Weisman says. “I couldn’t focus. Then Sarah sent this, and suddenly I was excited. The title story, ‘Shit Cassandra Saw That She Didn’t Tell the Trojans Because at That Point Fuck Them Anyway,’ was cathartic; it was like a release. Suddenly I could read again. I thought, This is so good. I have to publish her.” Also, she says, “ ‘Midwestern Girl’ is the best short story I’ve ever read and I’m so excited to publish the best short story I’ve ever read.”
Weisman expects this book to appeal even to people who don’t think of themselves as readers: people who like horror movies, comic books, stand-up comedians. “It’s a media-defying book,” she says. “The title and cover alone intrigue.” Kirby and Weisman worked together on the collection for about six months. “We edited the stories one at a time,” Weisman says. “Even though stories have appeared individually, in a collection they serve a different purpose; they have a different life.”
“Margaux is wonderful,” Kirby says. “She’s a careful reader and has a sharp eye as an editor, which I appreciated. I can be lazy and unthoughtful. She would hold my feet to the fire in a good way. And I’m thrilled and stunned how she and Penguin have let the book be what it is.”
Kirby points out the historical stories in the book, set as far back as AD 61 and moving on through the centuries, like “Mary Read Is a Crossdressing Pirate, the Raging Seas, 1720.” She says she feels a special joy with these. “I love writing women in the past. They were just as angry and horny and weird as women today.”