Everybody hurts

In short stories about messed-up teenage sex, alcholic parents, and other rebellions of the flesh, author Rachel Sherman rubs fiction readers the right way
By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  May 31, 2006

In Rachel Sherman's first collection of short stories, the body is a battleground. The characters in The First Hurt (Open City) -- most under 20, and mostly women --  quietly suffer a range of corporal defects. Large birthmarks, scabby skin, a slowness that doesn’t quite qualify as retarded. Although these stories concern messy adolescence, they are not for kids. And although they're primarily about girls, they’re not just for women. Sherman's writing is sharp, hard, and honest; there's a fearlessness in her work, an I'm-not-afraid-to-say-this quality. Because she knows that most of us have thought the same but didn’t have the guts to say it.

In "The Neutered Bulldog," which first appeared in McSweeney's, a teacher seduces a couple of high school kids, and the main character admits that "my dreams were filled with colors and boys and people without any genitals rubbing up against each other." In “Homestay,” a blonde nanny threatens family equilibrium. In “Proof,” a woman imagines her current love's romantic history. In the title story, a teenage girls watches the football team: “They are boys I would not mind in a large, anonymous soup.” In these ten stories, Sherman nails the sloppiness and the horror of being human.

In advance of her reading at Newtonville Books on May 30 (at 7:30 pm at Newtonville Books, 296 Walnut Street, Newton), the 31-year-old Brooklyn author spoke to the Phoenix as she made her way to the Seattle airport to catch a flight to Portland.

Your stories tend to have some pretty raw, sexual, and bizarre situations going on -- an alcoholic mom delivering messed-up twins, a girl fantasizing about her female teacher, people touching themselves in a variety of ways -- do you ever find yourself saying “this is too fucked up, I can’t include it”?

No, I don’t usually find myself thinking anything’s too fucked up. I write what I want to. I don’t take things out because I think it’s too shocking. And I’m not intent on shocking people. In “The Reaper,” [in which a teenage girl gets dirty letters from a soldier overseas] people keep saying, ‘Oh, this is trying to shock you.’ But what happens is shocking to the character. And that’s what people pick up on.

And usually when people say something is shocking it says more about them than about the material.

I keep reading reviews that say, “She’s trying to shock you.” And I find that interesting because I don’t think about them as trying to shock people. I don’t have an agenda. I mean, one review said something about how the stories deal with women’s sexuality. I don’t think I’m trying to make some sort of statement. If anything -- this sounds so cheesy -- I’m trying to make art.

One of the strengths of the collection is that despite dealing with women and with teenagers, it doesn’t feel like a book that’s aimed or meant towards either group. The stories are bigger than that. Is that something you’re aware of when you’re working on them? Bridging that line between kid and grownup?

It never occurred to me that the book would be thought of as for adolescents. A therapist I know wanted to give it to his teenage patients. I never really thought about making them for teenagers. I’m also not sure what the difference is, like why it is not for teenagers. I don’t know how to define that.

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