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An Interview with Melissa DaCosta Brown

Editorial Assistant Anastasios Mihalopoulos' Interview with 2023 Fiction Prize Winner Melissa DaCosta Brown whose story "Husbands" was published in Issue 298 (Winter 2024)

Anastasios Mihalopoulos: The opening of your story references Crystal Lake from Friday the 13th stating that this place was horrifying “but not in that way.” Do you see this story interacting with the horror genre or our general definition of ‘horror’ in a particular way?

Melissa DaCosta Brown: I do see “Husbands” as a kind of horror story, and it was fun to reference traditional horror settings. The horror in Husbands, for, me is the way girls of this age can torture and damage each other.  I feel that this narrator also uses the horror reference (and humor in general) to distance herself from the emotional toll of telling the story.

AM: There is a special kind of meaning transposed through the games that children play. Could you talk a bit about how you formulated the game, “Husbands,” and how it functions in the story?

MDB: The game “Husbands” was based on an actual game we played it my camp in the 80’s. It was equally confusing and disturbing at the time. The memory has stayed with me, and the more I think about it as an adult, it has become clear that the game was about power and inhabiting traditional gender roles as much as sexuality. There is anger in these girls about the traditional cis/hetero world they inhabit, even if it’s unconscious.  I find it interesting that in workshop, many male middle-aged readers found the game completely unbelievable. They could not digest that this could happen. Their brains revolted, yet every woman that read it responded, “Oh yes, of course.” That says something elemental, I’m not sure what, about the truth of adolescent girls. 

AM: Memory and temporality play an interesting role in both the content and the craft of “Husbands.” I was struck by the oscillation between the past and present narrators and how that allowed the story to move from conversation with the husband to conversation with the reader. I was struck particularly by Emma’s statement “I’m telling this out of order, but listen, I have told this story before”. There is an urgency to story-telling here as Emma tells the story in response to her husband’s suggesting they send their 12-year-old daughter to sleepaway camp. Can you discuss how you might see Emma’s act of remembering and retelling through story-telling as a form of power in this work?

MDB: As I wrote above, the story is rooted in truth. I have told the “real” version to dropped jaws and I delighted in the horror and the way, despite their repugnance, the listeners leaned in for more yummy details. There is something dangerous yet salacious about girls behaving this way and the narrator knows this and is playing with the reader.  The narrator gets that the story itself is delicious and shocking but it was also traumatic so there is a push-pull in the telling. I do agree being the one who gets to tell the story gives the narrator Emma power over Rachel and the girls in the bunk.  This is her version now. That’s the power of memoir and even though this is fiction, telling one’s truth, and perhaps manipulating the reader’s response, informs Emma’s POV.

AM: How do you see your story as a contemplation on loss of innocence narratives? Specifically, in how your story focuses on the body and physical touch.

MDB: For me the story is not about sex as much as power and emotional aggression. I tried to bring something soft and beautiful to the grinding scenes. I don’t think these girls are doing anything “bad” in those beds. Sexual experimentation should not be shocking. That’s why I wanted it clear that Emma’s husband is focused on all the wrong things when he asks her “Was there grinding?” The only problematic part of the grinding is the collusion, and the extent to which it was forced. 

For me the tampon attack is the most violent physical attack in the story. I did want the reader to feel the menace of the male gaze and touch in the ski boat scene, but to also be aware that Emma knows this desire gives her status and power.

In terms of the final scene with Emma and Rachel, it has been read as an assault. I don’t see it that way. I think it’s way more complex than that. I think there is curiosity, longing, desire and abuse all mixing together, which is what made it hard to write and possibly to read.

AM: So much of this story is about forced experiences through the husband game, authority, coming of age, women’s health, the need to tell a story to a loved one but not to tell it fully. How do you see the role of choice, or lack of functioning in the story and what do you hope readers to draw from it?

MDB: I think choice and collusion are at the heart of this story.  My references were “Brownies” and “Lord of the Flies” just to name a few.  I think there is no limit to what adolescents will do in a pack. I really wanted to examine this with girls. At the age the girls are in “Husbands” there is a deep need to belong and be accepted at the same time that your body is rebelling and changing.  I wanted readers to understand that tension and feel how Emma and the other girls (and even to come extent Rachel) are drawn into the power of the pack where personal responsibility and even moral choice are surrendered to the needs and desires of the group.


Melissa DaCosta Brown is a graduate of Duke University and has a masters in Journalism from Northwestern University. She worked for MSNBC and ABC News affiliates. Her short stories have been published in Waccamaw, Subnivean, Ponder Review. Her work has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and the Lascaux Prize.


Read an excerpt of "Husbands"