They More Than Burned: An Interview with Tara Stillions Whitehead
Tara Stillions Whitehead is a multi-genre writer whose powerful prose explores the fine line between fiction and truth. She regularly writes about addiction, abuse, and the underbelly of Hollywood, using personal history to explore memory and trauma via authentic, deeply compelling fictional narratives.
I’ve (Hannah Grieco) had the immense pleasure of editing Tara’s prose for JMWW and Porcupine Literary, as well as reading her first two books: Blood Histories (Galileo Press) and The Year of the Monster (Unsolicited Press). I’m a huge fan of her writing, of her generosity toward other writers, and of her basic humanity, which drenches every word she puts on the page.
This kind of honesty in storytelling is, quite simply, a literary treasure.
Tara’s new story collection, They More Than Burned, is an explosive, gripping read that dives even further into her psyche. It comes out March 15th from ELJ Editions and is already wowing readers with its distinctive voice, unique use of form, and heartbreaking characters.
I was thrilled to interview Tara for Fractured Lit!
Hannah Grieco: First and most importantly: Tell us about They More Than Burned.
Tara Stillions Whitehead: My publisher calls this my recovery book…and maybe it is. I used to think that my path to recovery was isolated to recovering from alcoholism and addiction, but at five and half years sober, I now realize that sobriety is only part of my recovery story. As a creative and as a human, there is a lot of myself left to unpack and process. Writing this book was a huge step towards that healing. The book may seem slim at 164 pages, but it covers 2,900 miles and 20 years in the life of a documentarian/addict who came of age when the twin towers fell. After enduring some unspeakable abuse in Hollywood, she moves across the country for the love of her life, only to discover that her alcoholism is about to kill her. She gets sober and ends up discovering footage she filmed right after 9/11. The book chronicles her journey of being courted by Hollywood producers who want to relaunch her career. I use screenplay format to tell this part of the narrative and braid in prose and hybrid texts that tell the story of the “archive” footage. The plot-level conflict is between our protagonist and these producers, but really, the conflict is about art-making versus art-selling and the complicated path to redemption. In real-life terms, that is where I am at as an artist and human. Writing this book was like answering the question of “How can I unpack these traumas and experiences that keep me afraid, that prevent me from living authentically and creating the art that I need to create?”
This collection feels truly linked, almost like a novel in how you use characters and setting. Even these incredible screenplay stories advance the narrative, despite their unusual (and highly effective) form! Can you talk about your timeline and writing process a little? Did you write these stories knowing they’d live together like this? Or did they just pour out of you over a longer period of time? How did you decide what to include and how they’d be ordered?
Form is really where the book came from. I was reflecting on my many attempts to translate not only memories of the past twenty years but also the zeitgeist of post-9/11, how that single event changed fundamental aspects of my DNA and damaged an entire generation’s perspective of America, war, and otherness. There aren’t always clearcut genres or mediums for those efforts, so during the generative process, which took place over about two and half years, I started writing these small prose pieces that felt like “archive” footage needing anchoring in a narrative that could contextualize them in a significant way. I realized that the point of view I’d been using was a person who had temporal distance from the people and places and traumas. The narrator was, in essence, “documenting” a twenty-year period following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and its effects on her life and the lives of the people she knew as a teenager. Screenplay format, which is written in third-person objective, was the form I needed to “document” this woman doing the “documenting.” It serves as a frame outside of a frame. I wanted to use her—this filmmaker, teacher, mother, recovering alcoholic—to show the internal and external challenges of telling this kind of story.
The prose pieces took longer to write. I published several in other iterations as standalone pieces in lit mags. When I looked at them collectively, I felt like I was witnessing a partially constructed constellation. Once I decided that this wasn’t just going to be a book of stylistically similar stories, that I needed Amber’s story to complete this “celestial” shape, things moved quickly. I spent about seven months writing the screenplay braid and film treatment titled “How to Rediscover the Unfinished Documentary about Your Life” (which essentially recaps the first two acts of Amber’s life and suggests that the book is dropping us into the third act, that we are watching it escalate in real-time).
In my “Acknowledgements” section, I write about archiving and how during the pandemic, I was actually digging through old notes and photos, watching the tapes I myself had filmed after 9/11. Many of those tapes captured people who have since passed on…places that have been bulldozed. I felt an incredible sense of loss going through all of those writings and video, but also panic. I kept thinking, “Tara, this is a story you started twenty years ago and never finished. You need to at least give it a chance.” I had no idea whether I was supposed to make a documentary or a book or whether it was possible to make both at the same time. I carry a lot of baggage from my time working in Hollywood, but I also carry a lot of grace. That came from getting sober, and maybe I wouldn’t have gotten to this place of inhabiting the liminal spaces of film and prose if I were still drinking myself to death. To be honest, when I watched the videos I shot right after 9/11, I felt guilty that I was still alive and some of those people weren’t. Who was I to tell their story after so much time had passed?
Can you talk a little more about the screenplay format? It’s unique, as is your background in both screenplay writing and television/film, in general. Was it an experiment, writing this way? A need?
When I write, content solicits the form, and as I mentioned earlier, I could not tell Amber’s story without using the “objective” screenplay format. Screenplays are technical documents meant to be interpreted by a third-party, but they also have to captivate, to draw that collective third-party in. Knowing that these screenplay portions are not going to be translated to the screen—or at least not writing them with that objective in mind—I took creative liberties, especially in the final script, titled “An Unofficial Meeting with the Network Executive Who Wants to Fund the Documentary about Your Life and RE-LAUNCH YOUR CAREER.” It was definitely a need to use both prose and film scripts/documents, both for the story and for me as a writer. I remember resisting it, reflecting on the fact that these hybrid forms are not wildly popular or accessible. I used them in my first book, but with restraint. And then I was rereading Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu, and I was like, yeah…I can’t deny the content its necessary form.
Were there any stories you chose *not* to include in the collection?
There were very few. One of those stories is “Thirst,” which was published in Five South, and which I absolutely love. It was included and then taken out and then included, but at the end of the day, it was too different stylistically and introduced so much new, speculative world-building that the book couldn’t carry. While the world in They More Than Burned is a fiery one, “Thirst” is a near-future speculative fiction piece dealing with water rationing and pollution issues that the other pieces don’t grapple with. Also, the story is in third person, and I needed to reserve that third person POV for the script portions that portrayed Amber’s struggles with trying to create a documentary despite the efforts of an exploitative and predatory film industry. It gutted me to pull that story, but it didn’t make sense to keep it in. It taught me that themes and setting alone could not justify a story’s inclusion. It made the book shorter, which I worried about. But then I reminded myself that this book, in its hybrid form, resists any traditional length benchmarks.
What was the hardest story to write in this collection? What was the hardest one to include?
Oh, gosh, this is going to sound awful, but I would say that the stories in my first book were much harder to write than these. These stories came so easily, it was frightening. I am a notoriously slow writer, but this book materialized over a two-and-a-half-year period, which felt like whirlwind. The hardest story to include was likely the opening story, “Drive,” because it combines into one-character details from several people I knew who died young. I was worried about treating that compilation character ethically. I wanted to create a fully embodied person who was fictional but held the best qualities of people I wish were still here, people who had so much to give the world.
So much of your work reads like memoir, and it’s a fascinating line we walk as the reader, not knowing what’s true and what’s fiction. [redacted], for example, is such a tough read. It must have hurt to write. How do you navigate these waters safely as a human being with a heart?
“[redacted]” started as a creative nonfiction piece that you published at jmww titled “Punchline.” Maybe that’s the piece that was hardest to write? Because it never felt exactly right?
When I was putting this collection together, I knew I was going to have to put a piece about Amber’s Hollywood assault in there. It’s referenced in the film treatment story and by multiple other characters throughout, but I felt like there needed to be a story that told us what happened.
I have written about my experiences as a young woman in Hollywood in my previous collection and in interviews, so it’s pretty easy to see that Amber’s trauma is inspired by, if not a mirror of, my own. When I rewrote it with all of the names and places and people, I felt liberated for a moment and then terrified for weeks. I went through and used erasure to protect myself. It’s interesting to think about that statement. To my abusers, it could look like I’m protecting them, but the reverse is true. That story is about “the cost of a laugh” and begs us to consider the tough question of “how to hold evil accountable, at whose expense we let it entertain us.”
This expense exists in memoir writing as well. When I’m deciding which parts of myself to use as material for a story, I have to consider whether the purpose—an act of creative catharsis, a call to action—justifies the expense. I try not to write at the expense of others. Not my husband, children, or colleagues. This doesn’t mean that I don’t write about those people or situations. My heart contains a multiverse of emotions that fuel my passion for storytelling, for social justice. I don’t always know the cost of what I’m writing—to myself or anyone else. I think the ego has a way of convincing us that art…really good art…earth-shatteringly brilliant art…is worth every cost and all fallout. It can be. But sometimes it isn’t. I’m not here to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t write. I do think that the question of whether something we create works towards harm reduction is important. “Is my story further stigmatizing an already marginalized and harmed group? Is my art cognizant of the ongoing, complicated dialogue about this person, group, or subject?” These are necessary questions. I ask them of myself. The best I can do is write with intention and humanity and remind myself to treat others with love and tolerance.
Who were some influential writers in your early writing life?
When I was a kid, my mom worked as an events coordinator for several notable bookstores in the Bay Area, which is to say that I was always well-stocked with books. I started writing at six, but I really started writing obsessively at ten, when I got an electric typewriter as a gift. I started reading a lot of R.L. Stine, Diane Hoh, Stephen King, and Louis Sacher. I loved the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series by Alvin Schwartz.
I read a lot through high school, but I became interested in film then and was really drawn to movies with strong dialogue. My mom had a printed and bound copy of the second draft of Callie Khouri’s Thelma and Louise that I stole and loved. I saw Requiem for a Dream when I was in high school, and being that my alcoholism and drug use were progressing, I started reading Hubert Selby, Jr.’s books, which really messed me up but also (obviously) influenced my film and fiction writing at the time.
During undergrad at USC, I had a secret relationship with a music major who introduced me to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which fueled my love of magical realism. Again, I was a film major, so most of my writing influences at that time were cinematic. The more indie and nontraditional, the better. I loved episodic films like Happiness by Todd Solondz, and films that manipulate time—like Run, Lola, Run and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. When I attended FAMU in Prague, I fell in love with experimentalist Len Lye and became preoccupied with Kafka (it was his hometown).
It wasn’t until after working a few years in Hollywood and going to graduate school that I encountered the texts and authors I consider truly influential—Clarice Lispector, Édouard Levé, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Annie Proulx, and James Baldwin, to name a few.
Who are some writers you admire who defy conventional form?
I think there is a lot of writing that used to feel unconventional but has created new spaces and sets of conventions. We see calls for submissions for speculative memoir, microfiction, hermit crab prose, et cetera. I love these forms and what they provide in terms of experience and commentary, but I don’t think all who write in these genres are experimenting or writing “defiantly.” That said, Kathy Fish always surprises me with how she uses time and inverts reader expectations in her flash work. Vonnegut’s genius fragmentation, satire, and unconventional use of POV makes him my all-time favorite author. Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic is a work of poetry so singular, it redefined what poetry can be (for me, at least). I mentioned Charles Yu and his use of screenplay as novel earlier. I know there are a million other writers I am forgetting right now.
What books are in your TBR pile right now?
I have way too many books on my TBR list right now—many of them ARCs for blurbs. Books I am looking forward to that have either recently released or soon to release are Katie Farris’ Standing in the Forest of Being, Jesse Ball’s Autoportrait, I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai, and The Family Izquierdo by Rubén Degollado.
What’s next for you?
This summer, I will be entering into preproduction for two short films adapted from They More Than Burned and The Year of the Monster. Until then, I’m enjoying a book tour and readings for students and other writers, and I’m hoping to begin work on a hybrid critical/personal essay collection about the influence of film and television depictions of addiction on addicts and how this contributes to larger trends of abuse and stigmatization in the industry itself.
Tara Stillions Whitehead is a writer and filmmaker from Southern California. She is Assistant Professor of Film, Video and Digital Media at Messiah University in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, where she lives with her spouse, kids, and cats. You can find her on Twitter @MrsWhitehouse74.
Hannah Grieco is a writer in Washington, DC. Find her at www.hgrieco.com and on Twitter @writesloud.
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