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GennaRose Nethercott on her short story collection 'Fifty Beasts to Break Your Heart'

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

According to GennaRose Nethercott, there are 50 beasts to break your heart - among them, maglits, easily taken in as pets...

GENNAROSE NETHERCOTT: (Reading) They do a fine job with the dishes, licking china cups clean with their pronged tongues to stack in neat rows on parlour shelves.

NADWORNY: ...Also archilots...

NETHERCOTT: (Reading) Fear the archilot - the house with knees. Fear its gait. Fear the insatiable lure toward restlessness.

NADWORNY: ...And the blue-bellied ib.

NETHERCOTT: (Reading) Ever since ibs figured out how to use the phone, it's been prank calls day and night. They're terrible jokesters because blue-bellied ibs cannot lie. Instead, they'll ring you to tell it to you straight - the recycling is all going to the landfill. If you'd kept practicing the fiddle, you'd be good by now instead of dreadful. That comb-over isn't fooling anyone. One day, you too will die.

NADWORNY: "Fifty Beasts To Break Your Heart" is the title story in GennaRose Nethercott's strange, sometimes creepy, sometimes witty new book, and she joins us now to talk about some of her stories. Welcome to the program.

NETHERCOTT: Thank you so much for having me.

NADWORNY: So that title story is a bestiary. It's sort of an encyclopedia of animals, real or imagined. How did you come up with so many creatures?

NETHERCOTT: In the medieval era, there were these collected bestiaries, these sort of encyclopedias of all the known creatures, that monks would gather. And they were these fantastic, weird allegorical texts, because on the one hand, they were just, you know, definitions of known animals. But on the other hand, A, many of these monks had never seen these animals before, so their descriptions of them were just truly kooky stuff. One of my favorites is that they thought that hedgehogs had spikes so that they could roll around in a big pile of grapes and get a bunch of grapes stuck to their spikes to then, like, take home for a snack. They also thought that goats were so sexy that their blood could melt diamonds. So, you know, there was some very inspiring content, to say the least. And I just loved them. I just was so entertained and tickled by them and this marriage as well of, like, educational document with sort of moral allegorical exploration, because many of them also had these moral or ethical lessons stitched in. So yeah, I wanted to make one of my own, and I decided I was going to just go to a cafe every morning, sit down and create three new creatures. And so for a few months about - I don't know - eight years ago or something now, that's what I did. I'd just sit down, and I'd see what showed up.

NADWORNY: Who showed up - I love it. Do you have a favorite?

NETHERCOTT: My favorite one is called the yune. Basically, the idea is that when a human body sinks into a bog and is preserved, as we often see, something of the spirit gets trapped inside the cage of this mummied (ph) creature and turns into something new - into this new animal. And the bestiary entry talks about a group of teenagers playing spin the bottle in one of their parents basements, and the yune joins into the game. And when one of the girls kisses this bog-body yune creature, the ghost slips out of its mouth and into this girl's mouth, who then starts speaking in dead languages. It contains all my favorite things, which is, like, weird teen parties with, like, strange erotic energy, with monstrous, bizarre spookiness and a little tongue-in-cheek humor along with human longing.

NADWORNY: Yes, that's the theme of this book. I love this. There are 14 stories in the collection. Some of them have been published in a variety of places already. I'm curious how you brought them all together.

NETHERCOTT: When I write a story, I essentially think of it as taking the human experience and turning the volume knob up. The way it feels to be a person so often does not always reflect in the physics of the world that we inhabit, the physical world we inhabit. So, you know, the example I like to give is if a person in the real world has their heart broken, it's this solitary experience where you walk through the world and see it unchanged despite your grief. But in magical realism, that's different. In magical realism, if a person is experiencing grief, you can have their entire body shatter into a thousand pieces. Or, you know, like in my story "Homebody," we've all been in relationships in which we've found ourselves inadvertently hollowing ourselves out to accommodate another person and their needs. And in this short story, it becomes literal, in which a woman slowly turns into a house to accommodate a partner. So for me, the common language between all of these stories, the thread that ties them all together, is this logic system. It's this mending of a dissonance where, in a way, I have a hard time with realism because I feel like it doesn't accurately reflect how it feels to be a person. You have that gap between how the world reacts and how the internal landscape reacts. And with magical realism, you can mend that dissonance.

NADWORNY: OK, two things I want to pull on - I'm not going to go too into the puns here, but you're talking about some threads and yearning. So I want to go to this story called "The Thread Boy," which seemed to be a commentary to me on growing up and creating attachments with others. Can you tell us about him?

NETHERCOTT: Yeah, absolutely. I actually wrote that story in one sitting. This concept popped into my head of this boy, entirely made of thread, who snagged on everything that he loved. And so, again, it's this kind of turning up the volume knob on what human attachment feels like on, on what it feels like to love someone and have to move forward in your life, but to always feel these tugs. And the more that you let yourself love, the more these entanglements pull on you. And it sort of explores the question of, is that worth it? You know, is it worth allowing ourselves to be so knotted in this passion and so tied in our loves and in our connections, that we are almost suspended in this net of them?

NADWORNY: There are a couple elements in your stories that I just want to point out. There are mean girls who have the ABC of murder, like this idea of kind of, like, natural and fear or, like, maybe natural and fear is the wrong word, but kind of like something normal and something not normal. There's a young woman who just keeps drowning. Water just finds her. She can't even trust a regular glass of water to drink from. She has to drink from a sippy cup. Why are dark stories important, do you think?

NETHERCOTT: Well, that's a big question.

NADWORNY: (Laughter).

NETHERCOTT: I like it (laughter). I think dark stories are important, I mean, for many different reasons. But one of them, of course, is that they provide solidarity for us. The world is dark. And when we're able to look to a story that reflects that to us, we're able to recognize that it's not in our heads, you know, and that there's other people experiencing it as well. I've always been really firmly of the belief that, like, hiding the darkness of the world from children, for example, is not necessarily the right thing to do because children live in this world, right? So they experience darkness. And so to pretend that it isn't there, that to me is what's going to freak out a child.

NADWORNY: That's author and folklorist GennaRose Nethercott. Her new collection of short stories is called "50 Beasts To Break Your Heart." Thanks for talking with us about it.

NETHERCOTT: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.
Melissa Gray is a senior producer for All Things Considered.