“Sleep With Your Rifle”: The Power of Writing from Trauma and Myth An Interview with Kim Barnes

In this interview conducted by Emily Cordo, Kim Barnes discusses the roles that trauma and archetype play in literary fiction and memoir. Certain stories, according to Barnes, are rooted in human experience at a fundamental, even genetic, level. She believes that the genetic legacy of trauma enables readers to empathize, regardless of their personal experience with a particular form of trauma. Similarly, mythological story structures are universal frameworks that resonate deeply with readers, even as the author innovates or upends certain classical story conventions. Overcoming pain and shame to write clearly and honestly about traumatic memories may be terrifying, but doing so allows a uniquely meaningful connection between an author, their story, and its readers

Kim Barnes has published three novels and two memoirs, for which she was awarded the PEN Center USA Literary Award, the PEN/Jerard Award, two Idaho Commission on the Arts grants, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association award, and the QPBC’s New Visions award. Her first memoir was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She is a Distinguished Professor of creative writing, in both fiction and nonfiction, at the University of Idaho’s MFA program.

Cordo: Your books are remarkably prescient. For example, your most recent memoir, Hungry for the World, is a complex exploration of sexual coercion and sexual abuse published almost two decades before the broader cultural conversation about sexual violence gained that sort of nuance. How did that memoir come about, and how has the response to it changed in light of the #MeToo movement?

Barnes: The difference is phenomenal to me. Hungry for the World came out in 2000, and I had never read another book like that. I started to write it as fiction. I was at an MFA program at the University of Montana at Missoula, and I had already placed my first memoir, so I was ready to write. I thought, “I’ll just write my second memoir,” but then I thought, “No, I’m not going to write that.” I did not want to open that closet and see that girl I was: brutalized—raped, yes—but so ashamed. I was so ashamed. I took it in, as fiction, to a workshop with Bill Kittridge.

It was a great fiction workshop, because he’d go to the bar, and there’d be someone there, and he’d say, “Hey, you should come to the Fiction Workshop.” He’d see someone at the gym, and he was like, “Come on!” There were thirty-five of us in this workshop, and only a few of us were MFA candidates. It was a great experience.

I gave him the first chapter of that novel, which starts with the yellow Corvette Stingray pulling up at the bank teller’s window. It was highly stylized. There was a party-girl feel to it. It was going to go dark, but it was like Looking for Mr. Goodbar. It was going to be a cautionary tale, and it still kind of is.

We talked about it for a while, and Kittridge didn’t say anything. He’s a friend—when I think about it now, I’m glad he did this—but he kind of outed me, because nobody knew that was my story. Bill said, “This is great Kim, I think you could send out this first chapter right now and get a book deal.” And he looked at me and said, “The real question is, why would you write it as fiction?”

Cordo: A good question. Why?

Barnes: I was doing it because I was afraid. My abuser was still out there. When I sat down to write my story as nonfiction, I was on my knees—literally, on my hands and knees. I started going through what we didn’t know then was PTSD; I was just “messed up.” I just could not do it.

Carol Houck Smith, this fabulous editor who’s edited so many wonderful writers—Pam Houston, Brady Udall, all these others—she was very interested in my work, and she called me about working on Hungry for the World. I said, “Carol, I can’t do this. I can’t be that girl again.” She said, “Kim, you have to lie down with that girl,” and I literally collapsed.

I got back up. But all that time later, I was married, we had children, [and we were] living in a very isolated place. All the time I was writing that book I had my guns loaded. I slept with a rifle, my husband on one side and my rifle on the other, and it was loaded. That’s how much I felt like my abuser knew what I was doing.

This is very typical, this enmeshing. It was like I was calling him to me; because he’d said he would come back just when I thought I’d forgotten what he’d done to me before, he would come back and rape me again. And all that time I’d been [denying] that was there. I hadn’t even told anyone.

So when I opened that back up, all the fear and pain and terror I should have been feeling then, but didn’t, came back on me. I was catatonic. My editor called me and said, “Kim, the book’s past due, honey. Where is it?” I said, “The manuscript, the hard copy, well… it’s in my trunk, and it’s bound in twine.” I couldn’t believe it. I was carrying it around hostage. Psychology 101.

Cordo: At the time, what was the response to you addressing these traumatic experiences in writing?

Barnes: When I wrote that book I had such an incredible response from audiences. With the first book, people would talk, they’d ask questions, but with Hungry for the World everyone would just be really quiet—quite a bit of crying. I’d go into the women’s room and they’d follow me into the women’s room. Women, ninety years old, would say, “You’re telling my story.” And men would come up to me afterward and say, “Now I know what my girlfriend is going through and why I can’t understand what’s going on.”

Cordo: From your perspective, how has the #MeToo movement affected the conversation?

Barnes: When #MeToo hit, it was strange. I’ve talked about it for years now, almost twenty years, and I thought I’d gotten through the worst of that PTSD. But when #MeToo came out, I was there. Me too. Me too. Not just once. Never just once. I was encouraging other women, writing them Facebook messages. They were asking me, “What do I do?” I was not sleeping, I was doing it 24/7. Other women would say, “How can you talk about it so plainly?”

I’d say, “I’ve written about it, I’ve talked about it, I’ve helped so many other women through it,” but I didn’t realize it was all backing up on me. Man, when it hit, it was worse than I’d ever felt before. Terror. Nightmares. Shaking. I couldn’t go to my doctor, which was so weird. I started shaking like I hadn’t been going to the same doctor for thirty years, through [the births of] my children.

So I’m still dealing with that, but what a difference. I would think, “Doesn’t everyone know this? Haven’t we been talking about this? Don’t we all know how many times we’ve been harassed, raped, molested?” No. We didn’t.

Cordo: What changes do you see in the way contemporary literature is grappling with the subject?

Barnes: I was interested in the response to “Cat Person” [a short story by Kristen Roupenian]. My women friends who are Generation X and my students who are Millennials, they were just thunderstruck. [Barnes shrugs and holds her hands palms up, as if momentarily speechless.] A lot of women my age felt this way—like, “Sisters, we’ve been saying this forever!”—but there was something about the way it was just owned, or clearly stated. I’ve thought a lot about this.

When I wrote Hungry for the World, I was ashamed. I was a feminist, I believed I should be writing it, I knew I had to write it, but that shame was overwhelming. I think now women may still have the shadow of that shame. A part of them knows they shouldn’t feel it, but they do anyway. That is articulated, even in times when you feel like “I’m just going to go out with whoever I want to, I’m going to get a date,” but that same danger and fear is still there. It’s freedom with consequences.

Cordo: Beyond sexual violence, your books dive into a lot of sensitive and potent topics of contemporary cultural significance. For example, in In the Kingdom of Men you juxtaposed Christian fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism in powerful and very timely ways. How did you approach writing about such a fraught subject?

Barnes: I was so aware of that with In the Kingdom of Men. It’s a closed culture, inside a closed country. What I usually rely on when I’m doing research for novels, or even nonfiction, is, if I haven’t had the experience, I go and talk to people who have and try to build a collective experience that my reader can find a way into.

With Kingdom, I was so naïve I thought I was going to go the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia [KSA] and talk to people. I was basing it on my aunt and uncle living there in a compound in the 1960s; I had their memories, but they were good company people and that wasn’t really the narrative I wanted. [Research helped with] things like differentiating tribal custom, such as female genital mutilation, which is sometimes thought to be Islam but it’s not. So I was weaving all these things, always aware. The Aramcons [employees of U.S. oil company ARAMCON] are extremely protective of the company, and they don’t want anyone from outside [talking about it], even my aunt and uncle. But I got so much great feedback from them, saying “I felt like I was back in the compounds.” And that was all from research, because I couldn’t go there.

Cordo: What was the research process like for you personally?

Barnes: I was interviewed by some men from KSA. That was very interesting. I was a little anxious. They were very strict with me, of course, but they allowed me to say [of Saudi women], “Fifty percent or more of your population, you want them to become part of the success of the Kingdom.” And they agreed with that. I think we’re seeing that now. Of course, it’s ridiculously slow—finally, [women] are going to get to drive—but it’s more and more that way.

I was so aware, especially after 9/11, about how do I approach, not juxtapose, but almost overlay my own fundamentalist experience—growing up in the Pentecostal Church of God, Pilgrim of Holiness—onto this other fundamentalism, because frankly it didn’t look so different to me. But to be sensitive to everything, because their stories are not told, you do not speak of them. Women’s names are not even known. We don’t even know how many [Saudi] princesses there are. Did you know that?

Cordo: Not before reading your novel. How did you research the stories of women who weren’t even allowed to have names?

Barnes: I came to understand that I had to go back as far as I could, way before ARAMCO and before the exploration for oil in the desert there. I had to go way back and see what I could find from the Bedu [Bedouin nomads] and their stories. Even in the histories of people who have been writing in contemporary times, there are amazing pieces of writing by men out of that culture.

But I was fascinated, for instance, that the reason women aren’t named is because there were raiding tribes. If the tribe that was coming to raid your family knew how many women there were, they knew how many to find and to take. Often, the women married into that clan or tribe or were bartered back.

Cordo: How did you react to hearing these stories?

Barnes: On the issue of marrying young, I don’t want nine year old girls to get married to anyone. But I also understood that, in that raiding culture, to bring a girl into that protective place was going to ensure her survival. It’s complicated.

It was really complicated for me to set my umbrage aside. But the women in my family were all married by the time they were sixteen—some were thirteen, fourteen—and not for dissimilar reasons. If you’re raised in poverty and you have a girl to feed, you need someone else to feed that girl during that time. So I did everything I could to read, not about the culture, but from the culture

Cordo: Speaking more generally of drawing from other cultures, in another interview you mentioned that Joseph Campbell was a major influence. The culture of many MFA programs encourages students to look askance at classical plot arcs, archetypes, and stories that are plot driven. How do you blend a contemporary literary style with plots that are deeply resonant with these classic arcs and mythologies?

Barnes: I love what Joseph Campbell observes, because that’s what he’s doing: observing. He is not “coming up with” something. He is observing what already exists, and in that way he is like Jung. Carl Jung is important to me, and his thoughts are important to me in a number of ways. Of course, the Hero’s Journey follows Jung. It can be very frustrating to think this way, but I believe it absolutely: there are only so many archetypal plot forms. We can mess with them, we can make them look not like what they are, but that doesn’t bother me at all, that idea that that there are only so many forms. It’s how you fill it, how you invent around the form—that’s where the art is, the creativity is.

Cordo: Why do you think these forms resonate with so many readers?

Barnes: I’m especially interested in this because I’m something of a scientific realist. As we’re discovering now, and as most indigenous people have always known, stories are in the DNA. Trauma gets carried on through DNA. Even if one of us has not been raped, if our grandmother has been raped we will have the trauma response in us. I think it’s the same with any kind of story. I think if Jung had come along now, that’s what he’d be talking about: how we carry story not just through storytelling, even though that’s a part of it, but that it’s in our DNA. It’s part of our genetic encoding.

I’m fascinated by that. I love the challenge of saying, “I’m going to take an archetypal story and make it something you don’t think you’ve ever seen before.”

Cordo: How are you embracing that challenge in your current project?

Barnes: One of the things I’m very much working to explore is the idea of a female tragic figure, in an Aristotelian sense, which we won’t allow in our culture. Aristotle said women can’t be tragic heroes because they’re not noble enough to fall. And I’m like, “Mmm hmm?”

At the end of Andre Dubus’s story “A Father’s Story,” he’s arguing with God—the father who has covered up that his daughter’s drunk driving killed someone—and he runs the car into the tree and lies about it, as a “good Catholic.” He has an argument with God, and God says, “I sacrificed my son.” And he says, “But if your son had been your daughter you would not have been able to bear her passion,” meaning her pain.

Somehow I think we can’t allow women—mothers, sisters—to be tragic figures, because they have to make horrible, monstrous mistakes. They have to bring hell down on so many people. They have to come to recognition and penance. And we don’t want them to. If they start killing people in revenge… I mean The Outlaw Josey Wales is one thing, but Monster, with Charlize Theron, well, start doing that when you’re a woman, and you’re a monster, not an avenger.

Cordo: How do you teach this sort of storytelling to modern MFA students?

Barnes: The great challenge is how many of these archetypal narratives are out of the patriarchy and absolutely focused on the male journey and male protagonist. That’s something I’m really fascinated by, so I work both in my own writing and with my students’ writing to ask, “What does that look like, for example, if you’re not cisgender, if you don’t fit into that hero type?” I challenge my students to do that too, and it’s so interesting, because it’s sort of the same journey no matter how you look at. Some of my students have asked, “Ok, on the Hero’s Journey you have to meet the Father. It’s like Darth Vader saying ‘Luke, you are my son.’ Well, does the daughter say ‘Luca, you are my mother?’ ”

I’m fascinated by exploring those areas, not denying or negating them. We can deny or negate all we want and it doesn’t mean anything. Trying to explore and expand and see it in a new way is very important. I love when people try to explode it, to see what happens and what we recognize, in terms of these patterns.