This fall, West Virginia University Press will publish Rachel King’s first collection of short stories, Bratwurst Haven. Over the course of these twelve interrelated stories, King gives life to diverse, complex, and authentic characters who are linked through work at a Colorado sausage factory. Rajia Hassib, author of A Pure Heart, said about the book: “These all-too-relatable struggles make the stories not only engrossing but also an intriguing and tenderly rendered study of this flawed world we call home.” Here King talks with Vesto PR’s Caitlin Solano for our blog.
When did you start writing this collection of interrelated short stories? What inspired you to center the stories on low-wage workers at a sausage factory?
I wrote the first story in this collection in the summer of 2016, a few months after I moved back to my hometown of Portland, Oregon. My spouse has worked at a sausage factory, so many of the physical details of the space came from there. Each story’s main character and plot came to me in a different way, however—a composite of all I’ve imagined, observed, heard, and experienced. I didn’t admit I’d written a linked collection until I was done; I just wrote one story, then hoped I could write another one.
My third ever attempt at a short story was inspired by a restaurant kitchen I’d worked in as a teen—so interactions between low-wage food workers must have interested me even then. I also worked at three different $8/hour jobs in my mid-twenties, from 2008 to 2010, and was underemployed as a library assistant from 2016 to 2019. Recently I’ve wondered how my coworkers and I ended up in these lower-wage jobs as adults, what kinds of communities and relationships were formed in and from these jobs, and how we supported one another. I think I unconsciously explored these questions while writing this collection.
Do you have any connections to Boulder County, Colorado?
Yes, I lived in Boulder County from 2012 to 2016, in both Lafayette and Louisville, while working as a project editor for Perseus Books Group in Boulder. I moved to Colorado after living in a few places in the Eastern United States, and although the landscape of the Colorado Front Range was very different from where I grew up in Western Oregon, culturally I felt as though I was coming home. I explored this potential Westerness through these stories and characters.
My library assistant job was in Oregon City, a small town outside of Portland, Oregon, that used to be industry-based, but now the paper mill has closed, and some restaurants and shops have migrated from upscale areas in Portland. Many small towns in Boulder County have similar trajectories: mill or coal towns now gentrified. As in Oregon City, you have the more dive-y bars often frequented by the more conservative old-timers, and the ritzier bars often frequented by newer, more liberal residents. I witnessed these different kinds of locales and people firsthand while writing this collection, and realized in revision that I might be writing as much about a certain kind of small Western American industrial town turned suburb as about any specific town in Boulder County.
The book often fluctuates between intimacy and aloneness, community and individualism, joy and sorrow. How did you approach writing about these contrasts?
My inspiration for a story usually comes from the image of a specific character in a specific situation, then I build the story from there, observing/imagining character(s) closely, then writing it down. In a first draft I usually intuit the order of scenes, then sometimes in revision I consciously build into certain feelings or tweak a character’s actions or words to perfect a contrast. In The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera says that choosing which emotional spaces to place side by side is the fiction writer’s subtlest craft—and I agree. Sometimes I think fiction writing might be like composing music: I imagine a composer modulates a listener’s experience from note to measure to movement as a fiction writer orchestrates a reader’s experience from sentence to paragraph to scene. In a good piece of music or a good story, shifts feel as though they come at the correct times, but you can’t always pinpoint why or how.
On a more personal note, I spent a lot of time alone as a teen, and moved alone to at least six different cities/towns in my twenties. When I was alone a lot, intimacy sometimes felt like walking out of a dark movie theater into a sunny day. And a community was sometimes hard for me to find, and once found, felt difficult to wholeheartedly join in if I knew I was going to leave. So my own experiences also influenced these specific emotional contrasts. Sometimes I think of my character-driven stories like portrait paintings: I aim to paint the likeness of each distinct, imagined person, but also hope the stories are united by my own sensibilities.
Were there characters or stories that you left out of the final collection?
I started a few stories I didn’t finish. Of my finished stories, all are in the collection except for a story entitled “Pain” which appeared in the Northwest Review last year. A peer reviewer for WVU Press thought it didn’t fit in the collection. I could see her points, and cut it.
That same reviewer and Sarah Munroe, the WVU Press acquisitions editor, suggested that I write a story from Cynthia, the bartender’s, perspective, which I was happy to do, as she’s one of my favorite characters. They also suggested that Elena from “Visitation Day” surface later in the collection, so I added “At the Lake” in which Elena appears as a peripheral character.
As I revised before I sent the collection to WVU Press, I cut characters from several stories because of timeline reasons or because I thought there might be too many characters for some readers to track—believe it or not, “Poker Night,” which now features six characters, used to feature eight.
Can you discuss how your experience as a grad student at WVU and working at WVU Press helped prepare you to be an author?
I decided to pursue an MFA because I’d read that you could learn in two or three years what it would take six or seven to learn on your own. And I do think my writing improved exponentially at WVU under the guidance of teachers such as Kevin Oderman, Mary Ann Samyn, and Mark Brazaitis. I also met life-long peer readers of my work there, including Alex Berge, who read and critiqued almost every single story in Bratwurst Haven—if the collection were a company, he would own 5 percent.
I had the pleasure of working at WVU Press from 2010 to 2012 as an editorial and production assistant mainly under the direction of Than Saffel, the production and design manager. That position gave me the skills to work in publishing and publishing-adjacent jobs to support myself and my writing. Also, because I have guided dozens of authors through the publishing of their own books, there are very few surprises now that I’m an author: I know each stage of the process as well as the times to make requests and the times to step back and allow publishing professionals to do their jobs.
What books do you count among your influences?
Reading Willa Cather and Fyodor Dostoevsky as a teen fueled my obsessions with landscape and interiority. Throughout my twenties I returned to Veronica by Mary Gaitskill, Like You’d Understand Anyway by Jim Shepard, Just Above My Head by James Baldwin, and In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje. Throughout my thirties I’ve returned to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín, The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty, and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. A Book of Luminous Things, an international anthology of poetry edited by Czesław Miłosz, is important to me. My all-time favorite poem is “When Comfort Arrives” by the late West Virginian poet Tom Andrews.
What are you reading now?
Marian Crotty’s short story collection What Counts As Love, which refreshingly respects the desires of young women. I just finished Cassandra Lane’s memoir We Are Bridges, which is so honest and insightful, and came across my path at just the right time. On my bedside table are two books from an Oregon State University Press sale, The Collected Poems of Hazel Hall and Beyond the Rebel Girl by Heather Mayer. I’ve dipped into both, and am excited to read more.
Can you say what your next project will be?
In between writing these stories, I wrote a draft of a short novel about an Uber driver whose sister has relapsed into anorexia. I’m not sure how I feel about it; I’m just letting it sit right now.
I’m currently working on expanding a short story inspired by the Red Heads, a travelling women’s basketball team in the 1930s, into a short novel. It’s bringing me pleasure to write about basketball, friendship between young women, and different regions of the United States.
After that I’d like to write a novel set during the onset of COVID from the perspectives of a woman who works as a groundskeeper on a Portland dairy and her teenage son. I recently told my spouse that it will be the most devastating and most joyful thing I’ve written. So deeper into those emotional contrasts, I guess. But I think that’s what makes us human.