Deborah Willis, "Eva"


It's December 14. Deborah Willis, author of The Dark and Other Love Stories, never accepts pastries from strangers.

How would you describe your story?

DEBORAH WILLIS: I would describe it as an attempt to empathize with and relate to a woman who is outside the norm, who would have been called a "freak" during the time the story is set. She has a medical condition called hypertrichosis, and is covered in more hair than is normally seen on girls. By the end of her life, she works as a "bearded lady," but most of the story takes place before she joins a carnival. For me, the story is about freedom versus confinement during childhood and adolescence. It's also loneliness, mother-daughter relationships, and what it means to be a woman in a society that values a woman's physicality above all of her other qualities. 

When did you write it, and how did the writing process compare to your other work?

DW: I wrote this story last year, when I was supposed to be working on a novel. But this fictional character, Eva, seemed to quietly but resolutely inhabit my mind and ask for her story to be told. In fact, she still hasn't left me alone.

What kind of research went into this story?

DW: I have since expanded this story, so am continuing to do research and am continually aware of everything that I still don't know about this particular historical and cultural moment. But the research began before I even had an inkling of the story, when I travelled to Cuba in 2008 and 2009, and was fascinated by the country's architecture and history. I loved to wander through those Havana mansions and imagine the lives that might have been lived there. 

More recently, I read an article in The Guardian about Gibsonton, Florida, where many carnival workers still live. I was amazed by this community, and started reading about the lives of the people who worked in carnivals, circuses and freak shows—their work, their marriages and romances, their financial struggles and gains, their vulnerability, and their dignity. Somehow these two fascinations, which didn't seem to connect at all, coalesced into this story.

What, to you, makes the short story a special form? What can it do that other kinds of writing can't?

DW: The short story never wastes words, so it doesn't over-explain and implicitly trusts the intelligence of its audience. It can take a resonant moment and allow that moment to stand for the whole of a character's life. It can also compress years or decades into a few paragraphs. Because it's so taut, short stories are often demanding and complex; it's a pleasure and a challenge to read them. That said, I think stories should be entertaining and accessible. Like all forms of writing, I think they should make readers want to stick around to find out what happens next.

Where should people go to learn more about you and your work?

DW: My website, The site also has beautiful images illustrated by Calgary-based artist, Paula Timm.

What's the best gift you've ever been given?

DW: My grandmother gave me her set of china, including some exquisite tea cups. And my partner, Kris Demeanor, has written songs for me. Usually they make me cry and laugh, so what could be a better gift than that?

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Michael Hingston