Tracy Sierra, author of “The Burr” from Volume 73.1, talks about new motherhood, scary stories, and her debut novel, Nightwatching. This interview has been condensed for clarity. The interviewer is William Shaw.
I was drawn into “The Burr” by its staccato prose style, with very short sentences building into brief, disturbing paragraphs. Why did you choose that prose style for this character and this story?
I wanted to do that for this story specifically because of my memory about my own internal monologue when I was in that stage of taking care of a newborn. The sleeplessness is overwhelming and makes it difficult to think except in short bursts of things that feel imperative, or what is there to do next. I wanted to mirror the exhausted hits you get when you’re dealing with that much sleeplessness and a totally new world you have just been tossed into.
Was there anything you were conscious of drawing on or responding to in writing “The Burr”?
There’s what I would call pregnancy horror, things like Rosemary’s Baby or Alien, where the horror comes from the violent conception, violent birth, and it’s more of an allegory of metaphor for something like assault. I think that is very distanced from the experience of most women and the actual horrors you experience as a new mother. The fear, at base, is that something will happen to your child. That is the biggest fear, it’s more responsibility than you’ve ever had, for the utterly helpless creature that’s just completely dependent on you, and that anxiety is overwhelming.
I think a lot of women today are in conversation on this issue, and horror is such a great way in because those early months after you give birth are body horror, in real life. You’ll be with other women who have infants and from the outside it’s like two women at a café with their cute babies, great, but then you get closer and they’re discussing the most horrific things you could imagine. Obviously there’s a spectrum, but it’s the childbirth stories, the problems nursing, you can’t control bodily functions, things get really dark really fast. You enter this world when you get pregnant where your body is doing things it’s never done before, and I didn’t really think about that before I got pregnant, but it is utterly disorienting. It would be like growing an extra arm one day, like “oh, I didn’t know my body could do that.”
I was very interested by the scene where the main character is at a café and faces judgment from other women around her.
I think that’s a universal experience, the judgment, and because the story centers around breastfeeding, the judgment is around breastfeeding, but certainly it’s in every aspect. It is shocking, the number of strangers who will comment, and I think the number of women specifically who will comment. I think there’s this deep-seated insecurity and fear. You have to justify your choices because if you did the “wrong” thing, or anything less than perfect for your kid, what does that mean about you as a parent and your kid?
You mentioned this story is partly inspired by your own experiences. How did the story develop, and was there anything that surprised you as you were working on it?
The idea came to me because I think now it’s getting more common for people to share how difficult things are that we just take as normal or natural. Something like breastfeeding is natural, but it doesn’t come naturally. I’ve seen a lot of friends go through postpartum issues and we’re recognizing those much more now, it’s becoming much easier to talk about. But the thing about being in it is you can’t see you’re in it, right? I think that’s so interesting because the narrator has very real medical issues. She has what you could call postpartum psychosis, she has this vision of this burr, she obviously has that horrible infection, and then undiagnosed, but there in the story, is that she has a rare type of cancer. She mentions the orange-peel skin, and that is an indicator of a rare type of cancer that is often undiagnosed because of breast infections. That isn’t picked up on. So she has these multiple issues, and yet, the way she’s conceiving of this is as a monster, essentially, in her body. But she’s not wrong!
I wanted to do more than just the crazy woman in the attic, because I think sometimes we understand things and process them in a way that doesn’t even necessarily make sense to us, but that isn’t wrong. I thought that was important to get across. And that obviously goes undiagnosed, her doctor doesn’t pick up on anything but what’s right in front of him, and only once it’s very bad, that infection, that’s the only thing that he picks up on.
There is a sense that the narrator is failed by institutions, especially by her doctor.
Yeah, I don’t know any woman who has not faced some sort of doubt from the medical establishment. I think that increases when you have “women’s issues” of any kind, especially around pain. There seems to be this complete doubt and dismissal of physical pain. When you’re pregnant, there’s this attitude of “every other woman who’s had a kid has dealt with this, suck it up,” which the narrator definitely faces. It’s also just, right now, in the U.S., it doesn’t matter how good a doctor is, if you only are allowed ten minutes with a patient, you’re not going to be able to pick up on the kind of complex issues this lady has. So she’s failed by that system.
Was that institutional element something you included from the beginning? What was the journey of this piece?
I’d say “The Burr” is in conversation with “The Yellow Wallpaper,” because the treatment that she undergoes for postpartum mental issues in that story is utter isolation, and that exacerbates her issues. As we all know from COVID lockdowns, it’s not great! I was thinking about how now the expectations are almost opposite to what’s in that story. You’re expected to give birth, recover quickly, “get your body back,” whatever that means, you’re supposed to do this or that naturally, you’re supposed to use glass bottles instead of plastic bottles… It’s an endless litany of judgment.
And then on top of it, in this country, you have to go back to work. The reality for most people is there’s no paid maternity leave, there’s no paid paternity leave. I know people who were back in the office four weeks after giving birth. It’s rough, and that’s why the narrator’s husband, who is not all that great, but the reason he’s not there is because he’s always at work. I think that is just a reality for folks, so I wanted to kind of point out that we still don’t know how to treat these things and support people, but we have almost opposite pressures.
And I will say part of the inspiration too, which is that as a kid I was obsessed with scary stories. I loved Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark and all these creepy campfire-type stories. One of my favorites was called “The Burr Woman,” and it was about a ranch somewhere in the Southwest, and this small woman with long fingernails jumps on a guy’s back and attaches herself to him. She can’t come off, somehow she’s feeding off of him, it’s unclear, but she’s on his back, almost becoming part of him, until he can’t take it any more and jumps off a cliff. It was just a really disturbing story to me, and when you’re a kid you don’t really think about why it’s so effective and scary. But as an adult, thinking back on that story as an allegory for disease, I thought was just really powerful. It’s this entity that becomes part of you, and feeds off of you, but you can’t get rid of it, and it’s not natural.
It’s always stuck in my head, this foreign body as a monster and a symbol of illness. So that’s where I got the name for the monster here, the burr, is that little campfire story when I was a kid. Obviously a very different story, but it’s a really interesting idea that I’ve always wanted to play around with. I like pulling these little threads from childhood stories. I think it’s so interesting, what sticks with us.
Is that why the burr has those little hairlike tentacles?
No, that just creeped me out! I describe it as kind of like a jellyfish, and I find the ocean terrifying, a lot of creatures in it are like something from another planet. If you look at pictures of cancer cells, they kind of look like that. They’re like a spreading growth with tendrils that penetrate and latch onto things, so it’s sort of a combination of those two things. It was meant to mirror the actual disease in how it looks.
One of my favorite details in the story is the talking pump that the narrator uses. Can we talk about that?
I noticed that the way people react to changed physicality is often by humor. If you get a rash on your face, someone may make a joke. Certainly the husband in the story does that, when she’s pumping he says “moo!” which is terrifyingly accurate and weird. It’s kind of how people can deal, is by making jokes. The isolation and repetitiveness of early childcare, when you’re so exhausted, it’s lonely and isolating. Everyone I know says you do start to hear things. I know many people who are like “the pump is talking to me.” And once someone tells you that, then you’re going to hear what it’s saying. I thought for the narrator, who’s so overwhelmed, and dealing with this psychosis, especially, she would hear voices in that.
I found the ending of “The Burr” very disturbing, with the burr migrating from mother to child. Can you talk about that aspect of the story? Are you getting at a sense of intergenerational horror there?
I think part of the fear of having a kid is that you’re going to mess them up. What if you don’t hold the head right? What if you fall asleep while you’re nursing and they suffocate? Ultimately every concern is, “Is the baby okay? Is the baby alive? Is my baby eating normally, sleeping normally, gaining weight normally?” All the normal concerns most people have. I think for her it is logical that any problem of hers is going to be passed on to the baby.
So of course, any removal of that psychosis would be obsessed with the idea that that is going to go for the child. I meant that very much in the sense of, no matter what you do, you can’t protect your kids. It’s very hard to accept as a parent, but no human being is safe and without pain for a lifetime. So I think this idea of a loss of control will impact her baby. She’s trying to grapple with what she’s done by doing this to herself, to the baby.
The last few sentences are remarkable, especially that ending: “And I’m the one who was bleeding.” How did you choose the precise moment to end the story on?
I really struggled with this ending. I knew where I wanted to go with it, and I knew when the doctor didn’t excise the burr, she would have to. She couldn’t do anything else, in my mind. I really wanted to give the sense that the baby was not safe with her. Because the system has failed her, her support system has failed her. Mary was too preachy to pay attention to her, her husband was only at work. She is so in it she can’t recognize her own psychosis, because that’s the nature of the beast. The baby is in danger. I wanted to end it in a way that’s ambiguous, like is she actively harming the child trying to pull this out, and the husband is intervening and freaking out? By then she can’t even understand why. It’s like, “Now you’re here? Now you’re involved?” I wanted to make clear that this is rolling to a point of crisis, and that’s the close.
It seems that parent-child relationships and disbelief of mothers are also important to your novel, Nightwatching. Could you tell us a bit about that book and its relationship to “The Burr”?
I was drafting Nightwatching when I had the idea for “The Burr.” There were issues I thought of that Nightwatching was not the right place to address. Like very early motherhood, the physicality of that. The kids in Nightwatching are older, so it’s a different kind of thing, but they were interrelated in that way.
The idea of Nightwatching is that a woman is home alone with her small children when she realizes someone has broken into her house. I think that’s a universal fear, to be asleep and have someone invade your home. I am fascinated by protection and what that means, especially as someone who is a small human being. I think the traditional idea is like, you fight them off, that’s what protection is, but I think it’s a much more broad-based idea. I wanted to put this heroine in a position where she had to face what I think is your worst fear as a parent, as someone who is not physically strong, where she has this very physical opponent.
I also think she and the narrator in “The Burr” are both kind of cold. They seem very logical, and certainly the heroine in Nightwatching is a very logical and mathematical person, but that isn’t really what’s expected of women. Like Mary looks askance at the narrator in “The Burr” because she’s so over-touched she doesn’t want to hold the baby, and Mary judges her for that. I think there’s definitely this judgment that comes if you aren’t effusive and friendly and warm-hearted. They both definitely have that in common.
Nightwatching is very much meant to be a classic thriller. I wanted it to be a heart-pounding scary story, where immediately, no matter who you are reading it, you think, “What would I do? How would I react?” And then on top of that I did want to explore the themes of how you are perceived out in the world as a woman, how you are perceived with anything “wrong” about you. For Nightwatching that’s some of the heroine’s past. For “The Burr” it’s that this woman keeps going to the doctor and insisting there’s something wrong when they can’t find anything.
It’s interesting, because in both “The Burr” and Nightwatching I do kind of have sympathy for the institutions. I don’t, for either of the narrators, provide a ton of evidence. The doctor in “The Burr” probably should have picked up on the psychosis, but it’s not like she’s telling him any of these delusions. In fact, she says she’s purposely going to hide it because she doesn’t want to sound illogical. The only indication she has some deeper physical problem is that tell-tale orange-peel skin, that he misses. And in the same way in Nightwatching, when you don’t have a lot of physical evidence, it’s often easier to just say “This person’s exaggerating,” or “They’re not right in the head.” I think that’s comforting to a lot of people.