Storyglossia Issue 38, February 2010.

An Interview with Liz Chamberlin


Liz Chamberlin's "Sisters Are From Mars, Sisters Are From Vegas" appears in Storyglossia 38. Here, Liz takes a few moments to discuss sibling relationships, sibling rivalry, the 80s, writing as revenge, and what she's currently at work on.


Anne Valente: A hierarchy is clearly established in this story—sister above, narrator below, and then cat, subject to the narrator. How hard was it to get inside the world of sibling rivalry, and the levels of power it creates?


Liz Chamberlin: Sibling relationships fascinate me. Sibling relationships are nebulous things, full of love and hate and envy and desire. Siblings are ephemeral creatures; they often seem to me to be, at least in memory, the ghosts that haunt our childhoods—they loom large at times, defining entire seasons of childhood, but disappear completely into the background during other periods. Going inside a sibling relationship is like entering uncharted territory. It's always an adventure and I come out the other side with a slightly different perspective than the one I entered with. For me, that is the reward of exploring these kinds of relationships. The story, when finished, is never even close to what I thought it would be when it started. That was true for this story too. It's that turn I look for when I suddenly see the characters in a whole new light. When I find it I know how to finish the story.


AV: The narrator thinks everything her sister does is "lame"—baton practice, Princess uniforms—but she still reads her diary to find ideas about what makes her happiest. This moment is heartbreaking. Why is it so hard for the narrator to find on her own what will make her happiest?


LC: She's the "little sister." She wants to define herself, but by definition (as a child at least) she is always defined in relation to the sister who came first. She's never been alive without her older sister. In many ways these sisters have very little in common, and have very little common ground from which to truly understand each other, so that creates an identity crises of sorts for the narrator. She defines a "woman" in great part based on what she thinks her sister is, which essentially is something she doesn't understand. And so, by extension, she has a hard time understanding who she really is herself. That disconnect touches the very heart of this story for me.


AV: So many details place this in a clear setting of time. Richie from Silver Spoons, grape Bubble Yum, the Volkswagen Rabbit. Why did the 1980s feel like the right era to set this story in?


LC: For me the 80s are sort of a wild and dark but cartoonish time. The events were in many ways huge although it might not be a decade we tend to take very seriously, looking back, which I think is a good metaphor for childhood in general. The 80s were the years that gave us Ronald Reagan and Just Say No and Loma Prieta and the eruption of Mt. St Helens (Blow Helen Blow) and the Challenger and Hardcore and Duran Duran and AIDS and took both John Lennon and Bob Marley after all.


AV: The narrator writes everything down in her book, perhaps for everything she never says aloud. Is writing fiction like this at times? Or does her book serve her another purpose?


LC: I saw the story as an entity as the narrator's rendition of all the things she "could have said," as she says in the first paragraph or so. It's the imagination of what she really wants to say to her sister, and by extension to herself, made into written word on the page. The story is "her book," essentially.


I liked the notion of writing as revenge, at least when I was working on this story. I liked the notion of writing that came from a place of pure, black anger. I was interested in the way this kind of anger can be turned inward, or reflected back on the bearer, with just a small tweak of the angle of perspective. That tweak was what I was working on with this story, how to tilt things just slightly so that I could see the characters in a different light.


AV: What are you currently working on?


LC: A new collection of stories tentatively titled "They Don't Write Love Songs About Heroes Like Me," and a novel adaptation of my first collection of linked short stories, "These People," which won the Maurice Prize in Fiction.


Liz Chamberlin's recent work has appeared or will appear in Fourteen Hills and Palimpsest. She won the 2007 Maurice Prize in Fiction and was nominated to Best New American Voices 2008. She received her MA in Creative Writing and Ph.D. in Ecology from the University of California, Davis, where she studied with Pam Houston, Lucy Corin and Lynn Freed.