Interview: Julianna Baggot on “The Key to Composing Human Skin”


Tell us a bit about “The Key to Composing Human Skin.”

Propaganda has always existed and yet tech has forced it into a such a furious machine that it’s become a different kind of beast. I think about how governments lie — and, specifically, how President Trump’s relationship with the truth, his own truth, his denials, his motivations, his turns on his colleagues and friends, have been absorbed into our culture, into our children, into our bodies. And yet we all have truths that we hide from others and ourselves. I wanted to talk about propaganda and how governments want to control information. I wanted to show a version of a future America in which there’s surveillance and messaging and mass incarceration for those who disagree. I wanted to tell a mother-son story. I didn’t know that there would also be a love story.

What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

I had this rash as a kid. It started in one spot but would roam. I’d fall asleep with it on my stomach and wake up with it on my back. I also have a huge forehead and there was this joke about renting it like a billboard. But this is what’s happening on Facebook and other places. My personal space, my online persona, is used for advertising. In thinking about that and the memory of the rash and my ideas about propaganda vs. the truth, the idea came to me — as it did to Hertzella — that we could become the vehicles for propaganda ourselves — our bodies as billboard space. We could become vehicles for governmental messaging. And as Facebook has been used for just that purpose — interference with our elections through false narratives — it feels relevant. But what if we could shift that and use the machinery for good? What would combat propaganda? Personal truths?

Was “The Key to Composing Human Skin” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

My mother was intense. She had obsessive compulsive disorder (still does, but is now happily medicated). She worried about my health, she fretted, deeply. And I love her for all of that fretting. The tenderness of the mother-son story here is an expression of the tenderness I feel for my own mother.

Can you tell us about any of the research you may have done for this story?

Taxidermy. I’ve never done the work myself and never would; I don’t like the idea of manipulating dead animals, and yet I’m transfixed by the strangeness of this practice and it required a good bit of research. Not my first time writing about taxidermy.

Can you tell us anything about your writing process for “The Key to Composing Human Skin?”

Once I fell into it, it came to me quickly. Writing stories has become a strange practice. I’ll have an idea for a story but I won’t know how to get at it. And I’ll wait for a long while sometimes until the first line presents itself. Once that happens, the first sentence has made a million authorial decisions for me, and so sometimes, after that, it’s much faster. Though there was a gap between the bulk of the story and its ending. It covers so much ground — the kind of sweep of time more often found in a novel — and so there were leaps to manage at the ending, and then finding a way to drill down to a singular moment.

Why do you write?

I’ve answered this question so many different ways. All of them true, speaking of the truth. I think that writing is the place where my mother’s obsessive compulsive disorder touched down in me, there’s that. It’s become a way I process the world, a coping mechanism. It’s been how I make a living — more during some stretches than others. It’s a marriage, a practice. It’s become part of my identity — for better and for worse. I do imagine not writing. Or try to. And, to be honest, I can’t really imagine the freedom of that possibility. And, likewise, I can’t imagine the suffocation.

Who do you consider to be your influences?

These swing around wildly. Early on, playwrights — Mamet, Wasserstein, Durang… Then magical realists. Then Jean Toomer, Michael Cunningham, Zora Neale Hurston. I admire LeCarre; it took me forever to know that. I really admire Micah Dean Hicks who’s first book came out last year. I’ve been reading Siobahn Carroll, who’s oddness I adore. I love the New Weird, fabulism… My familial traditions of storytelling can’t be overlooked. It’s how we live and breathe. But, these days, I’m most altered by nonfiction — books on seizures, pain, AI, neurology, botany, epidemiology… That’s where many of my ideas come from.

What are you working on now?

I’m supposed to be working on a novel, but I’ve rewritten it so many times that I’ve come to openly despise it. It glares at me. I glare at it. So I turn my back on it from time to time and write stories. Right now, I have three titles of new stories and I’m not quite sure what any of them are about. This happens sometimes. One is about Louis Pasteur, post-stroke.

“The Key to Composing Human Skin” appears in the January/February 2020 issue of F&SF.

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