Smoke and Mirrors—Interview with Annie Bilancini

by Catherine Carberry Read the Story April 1, 2015

How did you discover Lady Tyger? Once you’d found her, how did you come to choose the form for this story, both the structuring device of two truths and a lie, and flash fiction rather than a longer story?

Finding Lady Tyger’s story wasn’t at all intentional. I wasn’t searching for stories about female boxers. I think I was actually reading a fairly dated article about the 1999 U.S. Women’s National soccer team (which isn’t abnormal for me—dreaming of ways to meet Mia Hamm was basically my childhood), and it linked me to another article, that linked me to another article, that led me to Marian “Lady Tyger” Trimiar. Lady Tyger’s story is both empowering and incredibly heartbreaking. And I’d never heard of her, and I felt awful about it. She fought for her sport in a way few have had to, and she never really saw the fruits of her labor in the way that other trailblazing female athletes did.

The shape of this story is, in part, motivated by that frustration. I knew beforehand that this story would be flash partly because I’m almost always more interested in excavating moments, and flash is so perfect for that impulse. With Lady Tyger I was thinking a lot about the novel The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. That book is told out of order. Chronologically speaking, things don’t end well for the characters in that book. But the narrative arc of the story ends with this beautiful scene between two of the novel’s main characters. It’s this quiet moment that’s filled with such hope. Joyce does a similar thing with Ulysses, right? I remember hearing that Joyce wanted to end the novel on the most positive word in the English language: yes. Whether or not it’s true, the idea stuck with me. I love that structure for a story. That tension really lingers in the white space. And that’s where the final “lie” section of story came from. Regardless of how things really shake out for characters, I think there’s power in trying to assume or imagine an alternative.

You show Tyger from a distance in this story—she is a woman of myth in the press, and a heroic figure in her neighborhood. Why did you choose this perspective?

I really wanted to mimic the style of the accounts I found of her career. I came across a lot of newspaper articles from the time, and there’s that same kind of distance. But there’s also a strange kind of valorizing that actually bordered on insulting. The media didn’t take her seriously or, at least, they didn’t really recognize the complexity of her career and her goals; she was a concept, not a human being. I wanted to find a way to reconcile that for the story. She is kind of this mythical hero figure, but she’s also a women dealing with sexism. Male athletes get to be the mythical character all the time, Shoeless Joe Jackson in the corn field, that “If you build it” kind of heroism. I wanted to recast that trope for a female athlete. And, I guess, there’s that part of me that imagines myself as one of those kids shadowboxing with garbage cans and streetlights; I wish I’d had even more role models as a kid. More Mia Hamms and Lady Tygers. Maybe that’s all I really want on most days.

I have to ask, have you read Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women? There’s a similarity in the premise here, but I think you’re doing something different.

I haven’t read Almost Famous Women yet, but I absolutely loved her first collection Birds of a Lesser Paradise. Megan Mayhew Bergman can write these really ruthlessly beautiful stories, the kinds of stories that send me to my notebook inspired and energized to create.

With her new collection, I actually found out about the premise shortly after I started writing this story, which is part of a larger project I’m working on that tells the stories of woman in history who I simply wanted to know more about. In the plainest terms, I love history and I love feminism, but those two things aren’t always in-step, the patriarchy and historical victors and all that. So I decided to write feminist historical fictions. When I read that this author I love was doing a project with a similar bent, I felt a little outpaced (“No! She got to it first!”), but then, I sort of took a step back and realized that this actually had the potential to energize my own project. It’s always a good thing when someone you admire helps create a space for the kind of work you want to do. In a way it kind of gave me permission to really go for this project and seek new ways of entering into this conversation.

Lady Tyger’s story was maybe the sixth story I’d written for that project. I was in a flash-essay workshop, so I had the luxury of a space to focus all my time and energy on these long waves of research. I was able to really dig into all these histories and stories that I just wanted to know more about. And that was the fun of it: researching the lives of this incredible women.

I’m really curious about which other histories you’ve chosen to explore in this project. Which other women can we look forward to meeting in your next stories?

There are a few that deal with post-human females, I guess you could call them. For example, I have a piece about a canine cosmonaut and one about Tara, the house from Gone With the Wind. There’s a piece about a Muslim sultan, the only female sultan, from the middle ages named Razia, and there’s a piece about Anne Sexton, too. I know she’s really well known, but I kind of just love her and wanted to write about her.

Two truths and a lie about Annie Bilancini.

1. I shook Kanye West’s hand once, and it was just okay.

2. I have a dog named Liza Minnelli.

3. Once in a community theater production of Fiddler on the Roof, my dance partner fell off a scaffold on the side of the stage, and I kept dancing. I didn’t even check to see if she was okay.

About the Author:

Annie Bilancini writes and teaches in Cleveland.

About the Interviewer:

Catherine Carberry earned her MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University, where she served as assistant editor of Mid-American Review.