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The Muse: Deep Dive – Q&A with Student Author of “Whalebones”

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Emma Straus

The Muse is a creative publication that aims to share the interests, talents, and research of students on campus. The following represents the opinion of the student writer and does not represent the views of Loyola University Maryland, the Greyhound, or Loyola University’s Department of Communication.

 

I had the pleasure of interviewing Emma Straus ’24 about her short story “Whalebones,” a window into the lives of Jeanne and Cordelia, two women who live and work together collecting baleen on the beach for corsets they would never get to wear. Be sure to read the full story and learn more about the author below this interview!

 

Q1: First Question! Why whalebones? The women treat the whales with extreme respect and sanctity. Is there any symbolism behind that or a specific reason for this choice?

A: Whaling as a profession was typically a male-dominated field and one that was not always so delicate and poetic. So for a few reasons, I wanted to juxtapose this activity with these women, similar to the way I juxtapose their dresses with their huge, knee-high, probably worn-out, boots. Women are both beautiful but also have immense grit, and I also wanted to convey that women are more than one thing, a complex myriad of many. 

For one thing, the pair almost flips typical whaling on its head, taking great care and making it into almost a dance. The way I see it, it can represent a lot for my readers, and I want to give that to my readers to decide. However, the way I see it, every woman has their “whale.” Something that seems immense and too large to handle. But women handle it. In a way that I don’t think could be understood from a patriarchal lens. They take whatever it is they must overcome and somehow make it poetic, no matter how long it takes. Because we’re good at it. Because we have to do it constantly. And it’s not something to “conquer” like a war, it’s simply something put in front of them that they must do, and they make it poetic for themselves because they’ve gotten good at it. Every woman has their “whale,” something to overcome but something that isn’t treated like a creature, but an extension of themselves and their experiences. It’s a juxtaposition of hard labor and something that can be poetic. 

 

Q2: You use so much beautiful imagery. There seems to be a rhythm and routine to the story. How did you develop the style? Was there a specific mood you wanted to create?

A: Firstly, thank you so much! I wanted to create a safe space. A place that when you read it, it feels like you are walking around their small cottage, hearing the floorboards creak under your feet as you go. Jeanne and Cordelia make something that can be seen as gory and intensely poetic, so I wanted to make the rest of the mood the same. Because easily, if spoken about in a different tone, the story could change immediately. It’s not so much about these women hacking up these whales, it’s about these women. 

 

Q3: I know you don’t give us much backstory on Cordelia and Jeanne, but I can’t help asking, how’d they end up here? What happened to Jeanne’s husband?

A: I wanted to throw readers into the action. Make it feel like they stumbled upon the cottage and get to witness a day in the life of Jeanne and Cordelia, so it picks up right from there. Part of the reason I decided to do it this way, and only give some bits of their past was because these women feel the weight of their past but are also not beholden to it. I trust my readers and never want to talk down to them or over-explain, so I trust them to create a past based on the clues as they best see fit. Part of that is allowing readers to get these small bits and create something that resonates with them. Loss, yearning, being outcast from the larger society. Things that I think can resonate with readers for different reasons, but reasons that can give them a space in this story as well. Maybe one day I will write an origin story for these women. I’ve got some ideas so maybe “The Muse” can stay tuned!

 

Q4: Obviously, I’m dying to know, are Cordelia and Jeanne together? Regardless, you create a very homey atmosphere in your story that shows the comfort of female relationships. But, of course, I want to know, are they in love?

This is something else I trust my readers with. The love here is deep and profound. These women have been together for a long time. I think it is important to me that love shows up for these women in ways that counteract the typical “romance” tropes. These women are not typical, so it’s only fair. For instance, when they are painstakingly extracting the oil in their undergarments, it’s a simple moment where seemingly nothing is happening, but it is everything. They can pause to have a drink, sit by the fire, and see each other’s beauty in that moment where they are probably tired and careworn from the exhausting day. It’s a love letter within itself. Womanly love is so deep and profound–whether it is platonic or romantic. And these women love each other fiercely, in whatever way the reader may interpret that. It’s the quiet moments that speak volumes. When they leave their kitchen quiet to watch them swim in the sea. These women are living richly, vibrantly, and they have each other to do it with. They do not worry about labels or titles. They love one another in a true, pure, and beautiful way. Where they can on their own terms. 

 

Q5: Last one! How did this story come to be? What inspired you? Why is it significant to you? Loaded question, but an important one.

A: It’s funny, sometimes I plan out stories in advance and think of either bits of character descriptions or dialogue. But for this, I just felt like I needed to write. I sat down and just ran with it in one go. I wanted to create a safe space. Perhaps even just a space for me where I could go. And I won’t lie, there have been a few days where I’ve read it over to feel like I am there for a bit. I was inspired by the female friendships I’ve had and the way we love in ways that onlookers might not realize. The quiet moments, the spending of time together doing seemingly monotonous tasks. I love those moments. I also just wanted to write about women. Women as themselves, not as a prop, or love interest, and so on. The reason why I start in the middle of their story, I suppose, is so that they can exist as themselves, something not always afforded to women in stories. So this is a story and safe space for women. Women that just want to see other women living richly so that maybe they can be inspired too. A place where women–or men–can pull up a seat to their table and sit for a while, listening to the sea, sipping on imperial rum. Women so often are so many things in stories except themselves. This is a place where they can be. 

I was also inspired by women in my own life. Seeing them constantly be met with their own “whales,” trying to find creative ways to make ends meet or ways to get through things life throws their way. And they always somehow made it into something beautiful. Because women are so well-versed in that. It becomes something beautiful yet doesn’t discount the intense work it took to get it that way. 

And above all, as I mentioned, I just wanted to create a space where women could just be. Perhaps there is a yearning in my readers’ own lives, or a feeling of being outcast, or something, and this is a space where they can connect with that and find a place where maybe they could live with it for a while. 

 

Interested? Check out the story for yourself below!

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Author’s Bio

My name is Emma Straus. I am a senior and a double major in English and Communication with a specialization in Journalism. I am also a Film Studies Minor. I love writing, photography, making short films, and getting to learn stories about others. I have my own podcast, “Lick the Wrapper,” which allows me to uncover new stories weekly. I would like to thank “The Muse” for its consideration and care in asking these questions, as well as the English Department for always making room for my own stories to be told.

 

Whalebones

Written by Emma Straus

The whales washed up there. At the foot of the small cottage that was more of a barnacle on the side of the seaside cliffs than a house. The cottage where two women lived together. The cottage of Jeanne and Cordelia.

Not even the sea spray could weather the mortar in between the walls. But the salt of spray clung to everything. Not that Jeanne and Cordelia ever noticed.

The cottage seemed to slant. Everything had a tilt at its axis. Even Jeanne’s smile. That is, when she smiled.

The paint on the windowsills still clung on in patches. But the glow of the oil lamps illuminated the imperfections as the lamps themselves sat perfectly in place. The floorboards creaked in protest anytime visitors walked over them. But you would never hear, the sea’s song made sure of that. And there were never many visitors anyway.

The slanting of the roof was punctuated by the occasional scattering of large scallop shells that Cordelia used to repair the holes in the shingles. At its peak, there was a window that overlooked the sea, and a small sitting room where Jeanne would smoke her pipe and Cordelia would take her tea. It’s also where they would spot the whales that would wash up.

There were always candles. Candles in the windows. Candles on the tabletops. Somehow one would always be dripping and spilling all over its well-used holder, and the other would stand tall and burn against the night. No matter the misty mornings where the fog would cling to the outline of everything, the warm glow of the candles always made a well of gold on the cliffside there.

The kitchen always had rosemary strewn about. Tied up with the lavender that grew amid the marram grass. Occasionally there would be a bouquet of sea holly, juniper, bearberries, and geraniums. Cordelia would have clams and scallops simmering in a stew. Jeanne found the scallops for her in the bay. Cordelia pulled the clams from between the jagged rocks on the shore. Occasionally there would be a fish.

Before day could break the waves were long since breaking on the shore. And it was at daybreak that Cordelia and Jeanne would make their descent down the grassy cliffside, over the dunes and down to the shore that rested beneath their cottage. Their boots went lovingly over their knees. Their skirts were gathered up at their hips in an attempt to keep from the damp of the sea, but would make no difference either way because it always crept up their legs. The peppering of silver in Jeanne’s hair would blow in flyaway curls around her face as the morning wind galloped around her. And Cordelia’s curls had surrendered fully to the sea air. There was a time when her hair was almost straight, but now it hung in wild ringlets; the sea’s handiwork.

Jeanne’s dark eyes would carefully trace the landscape. She would lift a finger and point ahead of her. The pair then went down with their baskets on their backs and their spades, boarding spears, and other tools.

There was once a time when Cordelia would speak in remonstration about what they did.

Jeanne could only say, “It’s better at our gentle hands than at the hands of greedy men.” And it became the last rites of the creatures. The whales that would wash up on the shore.

The women wasted nothing. Not even time.
They went down that morning to be at the whale’s side before the sun fully made its appearance. Streaks of sunlight made their way through the hazy morning, making something baroque of the scene.

Jeanne twisted her husband’s ring around her finger a few times over without a word, studying the site.

And then the two got to work.

First came the cutting spade. Then the boarding knife. And then a scrapper among their other tools. The women would work in silence, cutting the flesh that would soon be boiled down into something new. The only sound between the two of them was the sea, and the sounds of their labor. Into their hands they held riches. And they handled the creature as such. Not out of greed, but out of respect. They were told a whole crew was needed. But they knew they were the only crew they would ever need.

Methodically, melodically, the two worked as the sun would rise farther and farther out to sea to watch them. The sun kept a watchful eye, ensuring they did all they could to honor the mighty beast. Some of the sun would make its way onto their faces, coloring their cheeks and then their shoulders.

The flesh would be cleared. And the two would collect the baleen that would be for corsets that they would never get to wear. And the bones that would become part of carriages that they would never ride in. Along with the bits that would make their way into parasols that the two would never carry with laced fingers. Their hands were deemed too blistered for something so delicate.

The two kept nothing for themselves. Except a small phalange from each whale that Jeanne would often carve into a knife handle and Cordelia would etch into a necklace. Something small. Never expecting much except for the creature to finally be at peace.

That night while they would carefully use a skimmer over the boiled blubber, they would sit in their kitchen in their undergarments. Their laundry swayed in the wind outside of their window, indicating a storm coming in. But not for three more hours.

Cordelia stood over the skimming pot. Jeanne tended to the fire, careful not to let the embers catch her bare feet. Her pipe was nestled against her cracked lips. She would use only a dot of the oil for her lips soon.

Facing the fire, Jeanne offered, “Storm’s coming in ‘Delia.”
And facing the flapping laundry, Cordelia said, “I know.”
Jeanne warmed her rough hands by the fire. Her labor had weathered her hands the way the sea spray weathered the windowsills of their home.
Outside their window, the collection of seashells that stood in as wind chimes shivered in the wind, their song complimenting the sea’s. Cordelia was almost done with the pot. They would go into town tomorrow to collect their profits. It was assumed that the profits would be enough to pay a eighteen-man crew. But it was just the two of them. Sometimes it paid to be underestimated.

Cordelia brushed her curls from her tired eyes. “Done,” She breathed.

Jeanne took her pipe from her lips and began to help Cordelia empty the last of the oil into the drums that they would cart into town. Careful not to spill.

“You smell of the sea,” Cordelia teased as they poured.
We always smell of the sea,” Jeanne allowed back, “perfumed by Possideon.”
“Don’t hold salt on your tongue Jeanne. You know I don’t mind.”
The two were almost finished with their work. A full day’s work coming to a close with each pour. Their candles illuminated their cottage, encouraged by the fire. The wind made the curtains dance. A splendid glow arrived at every corner as a gift from the candles.

“Better collect our laundry or it will be in the sea.” Jeanne said, finishing o her last pour.

Cordelia rushed outside. Jeanne watched her from the window, pipe back home at her lips. A small smirk resting there too as the wind began to whip Cordelia’s already wild hair.

Jeanne rotated her husband’s ring on her finger, tracing the engraving of the anchor. She prayed she would never fall in love again. This prayer extended to everyone but Cordelia, who Jeanne loved very much in her own way.

Cordelia arrived with the laundry in her hands. The wind picked up outside.

“Look, Jeanne,” Cordelia faced the window that had just framed her. The pair stood side by side, looking out at the inky sea. A small ship slowly drifted by. “Should be us.” Cordelia cursed longingly. The two were entranced by the boat as it sleepily went by.

“It will be soon.” Jeanne said, moving away. She rummaged in a cabinet. Finding what she was looking for, she rejoined Cordelia. The sound of a cork undoing itself broke Cordelia from her trance.

“The imperial rum.” She observed.
“A bit early to celebrate. But it will be us one day.” Jeanne handed her a glass.

“Do you ever think we should just take our profits and buy fine dresses and find our own estate, and just live richly?” Cordelia stared ahead at the sea through the window.

“We are living richly. And besides, who would give us our own estate? No matter the price or profit we offer. Our worth will always be determined by our womanhood. We’d be better off out there.” Jeanne extended her arm towards the ocean and took a swig, never making a face. “Besides, you can take a woman from the sea but you can never take the sea from a woman.”

“I suppose you’re always right.” Cordelia followed her lead and drank. “And we’d have to pretend to be stunned by our drinks. Jeanne, we barely even crack a face anymore, what a terrible existence it would be to pretend.”

Jeanne smiled, pulling her sea salt and peppered hair from her face, pinning it up with her newly carved knife. “Terrible, ‘Delia. Just terrible”

“I’d much rather keep collecting the baleen for corsets that we’ll never wear.” Cordelia said.

“And the bones that will be part of carriages that we will never ride in.” Jeanne took another hefty swig.

“And the bits that will find their way into parasols that we’ll never carry.” Cordelia could almost snicker.

“We love the storms far too much for that.” Jeanne leaned next to Cordelia as it started to rain.

“Someone needs to give those creatures their last rites.” Cordelia oered.
“I’m glad it’s us.” Jeanne agreed.
The storm shook the cottage’s tiny frame. The scallop shells in the shingles held on for dear life. But the two women were too busy swimming in the sea to notice.
The last bits of the whalebones remained on the shore to be taken back out to sea. The storm and the sea would make sure of it, just as Jeanne and Cordelia made sure to clear the rest.

By morning the grand frame would be gone, and the beach cleared except for gatherings of seaweed that came up from the storm. The shore would be slightly rearranged, never quite the same. And the cottage would stand to watch it all from the hill, with Jeanne’s cognac eyes watchful on the horizon, and Cordelia’s eyes like the sea.

And when the next whale would come, they would descend with their boots and baskets down to the dunes and down to the shore.

The whales would wash up there. And soon Jeanne would have another knife handle, and Cordelia would have another necklace. And never would they wear the corsets made from the baleen they collected.

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