Even though she is teaching at University of Wisconsin-Madison this semester, the author of “Milk Blood Heat” has managed to keep warm.
Dantiel W. Moniz is this year’s Mendota Lecturer in Fiction at the UW’s Creative Writing Program, and due to the pandemic has been holding her writing workshops remotely from her home in northwest Florida. She said in a phone interview that she has so far managed to avoid a really bad winter in the state — when she got her Master of Fine Arts in fiction she was in Madison for two unusually mild winters.
True to its name, “Milk Blood Heat” provides a welcome break from the winter chill for readers, and not just because the interconnected stories in the collection are all set in Florida. The fevered, charged stories deal with mothers and daughters reckoning with themselves and the primal connections that bind them.
Moniz will take part in a conversation with fellow author and UW-Madison alum Ladee Hubbard (“The Rib King”) in a virtual event on Wednesday, Feb. 17, at 7 p.m. sponsored by the Wisconsin Book Festival. Moniz talked about her time in Madison, writing from the perspective of girls and women, and how her time working in bars and at Abercrombie & Fitch inspired some of the stories.
How has remote teaching been?
We're in our third week, this week, I teach on Mondays. So I've already had three workshops. I love my students. They're doing really engaging work. I'm super excited to be back at UW in a teaching capacity, because my time there as a student was like, phenomenal.
How did you find your way to the MFA program here?
I had no idea about MFA programs at all back in 2015. But I was like, I really would like to give my writing more serious attention. I think I need support. I basically whittled it down to 10 schools, because that was all I could afford to apply to, the applications are expensive. It just so happened that it was a fiction year also. Madison's program alternates between poetry and fiction, so I was really lucky. And then I got in, and they seemed really excited about my work.
What did going through the program do for your writing?
I had always been a writer, that's just how my brain works. Madison basically illuminated what the steps are to publish a book. It's a very opaque industry, if you're on the outside of it, it's very mysterious. Madison brought me in, they financially supported me, they supported my work, and allowed me to just figure out what it was I was trying to do. And I left there, "Okay, I'm going to write this story collection, and I have this draft of a novel." And so it was instrumental. It was completely invaluable.
Were you thinking all along of writing an interconnected collection of stories? Although they’re not traditionally interconnected in terms of recurring characters or storylines. They’re connected in a different way.
First of all, and this is, I guess, just the way of life, it took me a really long time to figure out that it was a collection I was writing. I was writing these stories and at first, I was just like, “Oh my God, you're so boring. I feel like you're writing the same thing over and over.”
And then I realized that maybe that's what collections do. You're writing stories that are in conversation with each other. I do think of these stories as linked, though, and I know that oftentimes people won't unless it's the same characters. But there's so much that constitutes a link, whether that's geography or voice or themes.
In the last story, there’s this line, “every one of us is a link stretching back, mother to daughter to mother, in an unbroken chain from the center of time, connected by milk and blood.” Would that be sort of the thesis statement of this book and what connects the stories?
That's how "Milk Blood Heat" became the title of the entire book. Going back, I realized that those elemental things are running through each and every one of these stories. It makes so much sense if you think of milk as being what nourishes us, and the blood of the body, and heat, which is not just the heat of the state that I live in in Florida, it’s also like everything living needs heat. So it just made sense in that way.
What drew you to writing about mothers and daughters?
It feels natural for me to think about motherhood and daughterhood, being a daughter, having a mother. I just think that our society conditions girls and women to have to think about that from like birth, pretty much. Here's your little kitchen set, here's a little baby doll that you're going to mother, and it was the time in my life to where you know, I was getting a lot of pressure externally, with, “Oh, when are you going to have kids?”
It's like, does everyone have to do that? What if we all just like paused and thought about, hey, this isn't just the next milestone, this is actually an entire person that you're going to be responsible for keeping whole. And I wanted to fictionalize that and have more space to think about it. It felt safer to think about those things in fiction than in your real life.
How did you approach writing from the perspective of an 11-year-old girl? Was it different than how you would write from an adult’s point of view?
On the one hand, no. You're a human, regardless of what age you are, even if you're not understanding what exactly that means, or what is expected of your humanity. But I do think there is a rawness about being young, and especially a young girl, right? You're coming into this awareness of yourself, you're understanding that there's a way people are expecting you to be.
I just remember being a little girl and being told I needed to act like a lady all of the time. And I was like, what does that mean? But then also, they were like you’re trying to be too grown up. Okay, which one do you want? What do you want me to do?
Do these stories reflect how you saw the world as a girl? I don’t want to say “magical” but there’s something very charged and raw, as you said.
I think that there is a way in which adults trivialize childhood and they're like, “Oh, you’re a child. Go play. You don't have concerns or worries or thoughts.” But that's the opposite of the case. At least for me. I just remember, my inner life, even though I wouldn't have known to call it an inner life at that time, was much more nuanced and gritty and searching. And asking questions that maybe adults thought were morbid or dark or inappropriate for me. But that's where I was, and I wasn't being able to receive those answers. I felt like there's a certain way in which adults don't take children seriously that I wanted to kind of honor in my work.
One thing I noticed is that your characters have this relationship with their own bodies that is very powerful. There are women who are pregnant, women who have had miscarriages, girls going through puberty. It’s like they have a symbiotic relationship with their own bodies.
That was really important for me to explore in these stories. By the time 2020 hit, these stories were already in revisions and getting ready to be published, but 2020 made me realize that it’s so easy to think of your body as inanimate. It’s just there. But it requires something of you, it requires a lot of you, actually, to function properly. We’re not our bodies, but we do live in our bodies. There were moments where I was almost startled by the fact that this was a real thing. This is almost like an animal.
I’m a person who sense my world through my feelings, through the body. And I wanted these stories to be felt in people’s bodies. I think there’s something really cool about reading something two-dimensional, and then having this three-dimensional feeling or image in your head after reading it.
There are also a number of stories that involve the service industry in some way. What interested you about that world?
Before I came to Madison, all I had ever done was service industry work. I worked very briefly at an Abercrombie & Fitch in Seattle, which was such a terrorizing experience. There's so many things that are happening on a class level, on a gender level, on a race level, when you work at serving other people. People automatically assume things about your life just because you’re doing this job. I used to have people tell me all the time, “Oh, I hope you’re still in school.” You’re basically telling me more about you than you think you are projecting about me. You’re telling me how you feel about people who are having to do these types of jobs that you think of as low wage.
People tell you about themselves in a way that they ordinarily wouldn’t, because it’s like you’re almost not a person. The types of things people would tell me — I have so many things that are going to go into so many books that people have told me from the years of my restaurant experience.