An Interview with GennaRose Nethercott: Endings, Fairytales, and the Spookiest Realms

Written by Reece Gritzmacher

In 2017, GennaRose Nethercott’s six-part narrative poem, The Lumberjack’s Dove, was selected by Louise Glück as a winner of the National Poetry Series Competition. Nethercott has since completed several works, including the children’s story Lianna Fled the Cranberry Bog (“a story told in cootie catchers”). She has two books forthcoming from Knopf’s Vintage Anchor: a novel titled Thistlefoot (out September 13, 2022) and a short story collection called 50 Beasts to Break Your Heart. In November of 2021, I interviewed Nethercott over email.  

Interviewer

My bookcase is stuffed with poetry books I deeply admire, yet The Lumberjack’s Dove is the one I most consistently recommend to others, and draw upon for writing exercises when I lead workshops. Denis Diderot wrote, “Poetry must have something in it that is barbaric, vast, and wild,” and I feel The Lumberjack’s Dove possesses this and more. Your book crackles with magic, energy, and playfulness. I’ve felt caught under its spell since first purchasing a copy in early 2019. When did the idea for The Lumberjack’s Dove first come to you, and were there any surprising changes in terms of content or form from early drafts to later ones?

GennaRose Nethercott

Wildly enough, the very earliest seeds of Lumberjack came from a writing prompt, offered up by poet Marty McConnell at her living room workshop series Vox Ferus. The prompt in question was: Name a body part. Name an object. Now, replace the body part with the object. I wrote down “hand” to start, and then apparently botched the assignment, because I named “dove” instead of an object. But, I ended up liking what I scrawled down that evening and decided to explore it further—which I did, bit by bit, over the next two years.

As for changes throughout the editing process, the content stayed largely the same (though at least 30 “cubes,” as I call the prose poem blocks, were cut with the help of Louise Glück’s brutal and exacting editorial eye). There was an unexpected form change, however, once the book went into production: originally, I intended there to be only a single cube per page. I imagined them like pupils in the paper’s eye. Each cube, an independent thought, separated by the sighing of a page turning—not unlike a wing fluttering. However, my publishers had other ideas, and the book was released with two per page rather than one.

Interviewer

I’m curious about your relationship with endings. Both The Lumberjack’s Dove and Lianna Fled the Cranberry Bog offer multiple possibilities to the reader. What is an ending for you? How do you feel about the concept of endings? Do you recall what motivated your decision to include multiple endings in those projects?

GennaRose Nethercott

Both of these projects toy with folkloric forms and motifs—and one of my favorite things about lore is its multiplicity, its ability to shapeshift. Any given folktale or fairytale exists in thousands of variants, altered by thousands of tellers throughout centuries. In one version, a fairy godmother gives Cinderella her ball gown; in another, her mother’s spirit in a willow tree tosses it down to her. These tellings are different, but they aren’t paradoxical—they can both exist at once. All variants are correct, because there is no wrong way to tell a folktale. So in both Lumberjack and Lianna, not only do they have multiple endings, but multiple middles, too. Many branches splitting off the same bough, the same core story.

That’s my heady answer. I think I’d be lying though if I didn’t admit that part of it is just me hating to have to choose only one. I want every ending. Every version of the story. I don’t feel like I have the authority to dictate which is best—so I get out of it altogether by including a few options simultaneously. It’s a bit of a cheat, really.

Oddly, though, when I write short stories or more traditional fiction, I know the endings first. The end is what informs everything else that comes before it. I start by knowing how I want the reader to feel when they finish—and then work backwards. What action would conjure that feeling? And what plot would need to develop, what choices made, to reach that action?

Interviewer

You’ve written a book of poetry, children’s story, album of modern ballads, novel, short story collection, and even a full-length play for your college thesis. Can you talk about your relationship with genre? Do short stories, novels, and poetry feel like distinct entities to you? Are they in conversation with one another?

GennaRose Nethercott

Maybe this is similar to not wanting to choose just one ending, but I don’t want to have to choose just one structure, either. I’m bad at that sort of thing. I get bored fast. Like, all through my twenties, I rarely stayed in a city longer than a few months at a time. Restlessness, it’s my fatal flaw—but it keeps things interesting. I love experimenting with new styles, new shapes, new techniques with which to tell a story. With Lumberjack, I was fascinated by exploring the lines, or lack thereof, between poem and novel. With Lianna: what if a book could also be a game and could also be divination? With Modern Ballads, I’d fallen in love with all these old folk songs and wanted to try my hand at my own (plus had dated too many musicians and figured I should make use of their talents somehow). I have a hard time taking something in as a reader and not wanting to try it myself. That said, even though the structure of what I’m writing changes, the themes and subjects stay the same. My work is always based in folklore, and could be classified as speculative. There’s always longing threaded through, and always something supernatural. I think of form (fiction vs poetry vs theater vs fold up paper cootie catchers or what-have-you…) as the box. While the box might change, the contents remain the same.

Interviewer

In August 2020, you announced your fiction debut on Twitter, naming two books forthcoming from Knopf’s Vintage Anchor: a novel titled Thistlefoot and a short story collection called 50 Beasts to Break Your Heart. Can you tell me a little about these books, and when readers might anticipate their release?

GennaRose Nethercott

Yes!!! I’m so excited! Okay, so:

Thistlefoot is coming out first, due sometime next fall, 2022. It’s a novel based in a blend of Russian folklore, Jewish history, and American travel stories. It follows two siblings, Isaac (a conman and street performer) and Bellatine (a woodworker), who happen to be descendents of the infamous witch from Russian lore, Baba Yaga. The story starts when the siblings receive unusual inheritance: their ancestor’s living, sentient house, lofted up on a pair of chicken legs. However, unbeknownst to them, the house didn’t arrive alone, and soon Isaac, Bellatine, and their living house are fleeing from an ominous figure called the Longshadow Man—who bears with him violent secrets of their family’s past.

It’s an adventure story, and a modern fairytale, but it’s also about ancestral trauma and what happens when the wrong people take control of a narrative. Isaac and Bellatine’s familial history is based on my own family’s past—so writing this book allowed me to learn more about where I came from, too, alongside learning about my characters.

50 Beasts is, as you mentioned, a short story collection—and this one won’t be out until at least a year after Thistlefoot, so I consider it something to look forward to. It contains a smorgasbord of weird, spooky, speculative stories. There are staircases that descend forever. Girls who drown thirty-seven times. Talking roosters. Necromancing middle schoolers. You know—the good shit.

Interviewer

Continuing with the topic of genre, do you ever write creative nonfiction, and have you considered publishing any books of creative nonfiction?

GennaRose Nethercott

Honestly, all the things I write feel a bit like creative nonfiction to me, just in that they come out of real emotional landscapes I’m navigating. So while the facts of the story may be a hand turning into a dove, the emotional underpinnings are autobiographical. The longing. The resistance to change. The attempt to fight against loss. I haven’t leaned into more direct, literal nonfiction because I like the flexibility—and the shield, if I’m honest—of the fantastical. I could see myself writing a fabulist sort of memoir someday, but nothing planned, no.

Interviewer

What does the process of creating a poem-to-order look like, and how has the pandemic affected your poem-to-order business? Your writing?

GennaRose Nethercott

I think of poems-to-order as a practice completely separate from my own writing and publishing, because ultimately I don’t consider it fully mine. For ten years now, I’ve fulfilled poetry commissions on a 1952 Hermes Rocket typewriter—where a client will give me a subject, and I’ll compose for them a poem on the spot on that topic. Most frequently, this is done live at events, where myself and my team The Traveling Poetry Emporium will set up and type poems live at galas, weddings, university functions, etc. In many ways it’s the opposite of writing books; it’s public and social, it’s collaborative, it’s lively, and most importantly, it’s not for me—it’s for whoever receives the poem. I think it’s a good balance to the rest of my time, which can be so insular and inward facing. But yeah, quarantine definitely ground our events to a halt. They’re starting to come back though.

As for how the pandemic affected my writing: I was under deadline for Thistlefoot through most of it, so I sort of had no choice but to keep charging forward. One unexpected and sort of deranged side effect was that I found myself spending much, much more time with characters I invented in my novel than with actual humans. I’m sure that’s had a lasting and bizarre impact on my vibes as a person… But we’re all a little off these days.

Interviewer

Upon completing a poem, how does it feel to release your poetry to strangers? How does your relationship with those poems differ from your relationship with your personal projects—your published or in-process works?

GennaRose Nethercott

As I mentioned above, I really think of poems-to-order as belonging more to the strangers than to myself, so handing them off feels right. I don’t even keep copies, just whoosh, off they go. My personal projects though, like my books and stories? I’d dive headfirst into a burning building before I’d let myself be separated from those. They feel like part of me—they’re my primary means of connecting with the world.

Interviewer

Visual art has been a big part of your past projects. During your cross-country tour for The Lumberjack’s Dove, you showed shadow puppetry created by Vermont-based Wooly Mar. Lianna Fled the Cranberry Bog was illustrated by Bobby DiTrani. Do you consider visual art during the writing process?

GennaRose Nethercott

While writing, no—the pieces are just on the page. Even Lianna, which I knew would be illustrated, existed as only text for me mentally as I was working. It was wild when I first saw Bobby’s illustrations… The story is about this cranberry bog farmed by young women—and every month, one girl is sacrificed to a beast within the bog to keep the harvest bountiful. It’s a dark story, but I was sort of cheerfully and spookily wandering through it until I saw the drawings. It was at that point, where suddenly the girls were real and looking me in the eye that I was like, “Oh Jesus Christ, what did I DO to these poor people?!”

But I LOVE collaborating with visual artists for so many reasons. It lets the story heighten and change in ways it never could in my hands alone. It allows me to team up with friends, and share the projects’ triumphs and tribulations, which makes the work less lonesome. And for something like the Lumberjack shadow show, I really believe that as soon as you venture to read a piece aloud in front of an audience, you have to be super aware of what sensory experience the audience is having. Not just the words they’re hearing, but what they’re seeing, how the space feels… It’s different than reading a poem on the page, where a reader can linger or backtrack at will. Aloud, it has to sink in immediately—so a visual tether can be not only whimsical and fun and unique, but help the story translate from textual to aural more easily.

Interviewer

What are you reading now?

GennaRose Nethercott

I just finished Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier for the first time, and am frankly offended that no one shoved this book into my hands sooner. It’s so perfect. I’m also in the middle of some essays on writing by Ray Bradbury, and a stack of YA fantasy novels about demon hunters and thieves and shapeshifters—the best way to get cozy and ready for winter, in my opinion.

Interviewer

If given the opportunity, would you rather travel to space, to the bottom of the ocean, or somewhere else that’s otherworldly? Which do you consider to be the spookiest option?

GennaRose Nethercott

Honestly both sound awful to me? I don’t love vast abysses. Shove me in a little tunnel in a cave and I’m fine, but open water or the expanse of space… nah. I would, however, make an exception if it means going to the moon. I’m a poet, I’m obligated by law to have a semi-erotic attachment to the moon—so yeah. I’ll go with space, for the moon only.

The bottom of the ocean is spookiest to me, if by spooky you mean viscerally horrifying. You know there are just… limbs floating around in there. One could pop up at any moment. You don’t know. We don’t belong there. Get out.

Interviewer

In other interviews, you’ve expressed your love of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Who is your favorite character and why?

GennaRose Nethercott

I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again: I truly believe Buffy is the greatest story ever told, in any medium. My favorite is Spike, because he’s simply a good time. But really, I have to say Buffy herself is what makes the show so incredible. According to the overtrodden Hero Cycle, developed by Joseph Campbell, most myths begin with the hero receiving some sort of call toward heroism—and refusing that call. They don’t want it—don’t want their powers, don’t want the adventure. However, fairly soon they accept their fate and lean into it. What’s so brilliant about Buffy as a character is she never fully accepts the call. She refuses and refuses, trying so desperately to be normal, and never stops refusing, even while stopping apocalypses and slaying demons and traveling to hell and back. So it means there is this constant, thrumming tension throughout every step of that story. A wire pulled so tight it vibrates, between Buffy’s active destiny, and the normal life she’s trying to pull toward in the opposite direction. And while she’s amazing at fighting monsters, she sucks at being normal. She’s awful at dating. She’s constantly late to class. She mucks up her friendships. But still, she insists on trying. That tension, that simple tiny choice to never move beyond the “Refusal of the Call” stage—it’s genius, because it makes her entire story have this uncomfortable chafing electricity underneath.

I could obviously spend the whole interview on this. Next time…


GennaRose Nethercott is the author of The Lumberjack’s Dove (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2018), selected by Louise Glück as a winner of the National Poetry Series. Her other recent projects include the narrative song collection Modern Balladsand Lianna Fled the Cranberry Bog: A Story in Cootie Catchers (Ninepin Press 2019). A Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Fellow, her work has appeared in BOMB Magazine, The Massachusetts Review, The Offing, PANK, and elsewhere, and she has been a writer-in-residence at the Vermont Studio Center, Art Farm Nebraska, and the Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris. Her debut novel THISTLEFOOT is forthcoming from Knopf Anchor.

Reece Gritzmacher is from Portland, Oregon. Their poetry has received an Academy of American Poets Prize, and their prose has appeared or is forthcoming on Sundog Lit, Another Chicago Magazine, and genderqueer.me (some publications under a former first name). Currently an MFA student at Northern Arizona University, they are investigating the intersections of settler colonialism, queerness, and a missing creek. They are the nonfiction editor of Thin Air Magazine.