Tag Archives: elizabeth rollins

the dictionary project author interview: elizabeth frankie rollins

We are delighted to share with you the dictionary project’s interview with author Elizabeth Frankie Rollins, whose stunning debut collection of short stories The Sin Eater and Other Stories is released this Saturday. A new plague falls on houses, a boy and his dog appear and disappear and reappear, sins are consumed, relished, and released, whole villages made of sand are carved and destroyed, a boy runs and keeps on running, people try to be who they are not and then failing that, try to be who they are. Enjoy these words from Rollins, on life and writing, which, for her, are really one and the same.


photo by Ben Johnson

photo by Ben Johnson



1. Please share a memory/story/thought in relation to a dictionary/dictionaries:


In my early thirties, I bought a dictionary and a thesaurus for my writing desk, each one big and red.  I told a writer friend of mine that I’d done this and he said, “Uh oh.”  I asked him why he said that but he shrugged and looked out the window.  I changed the subject, mystified.

It used to bother me, that “Uh Oh.” I could hear it every time I reached for one of these big red books.  I mean, what could be wrong with wanting to use better, more accurate language?  I’ve pondered it for years. Still, I have no idea what he could have possibly meant.



2. What is your current favorite word?





3. What is the most obnoxious/insidious/annoying word?


It’s not a word; it’s a phrase.  I loathe the phrase “been there, done that.”  Luckily, it is falling out of use.  It’s such a cruel thing to say.  It speaks of all that is limited and small and unwilling.  What it means to say is that the speaker does not care about you and your story or what you might be saying-it’s an essentially narcissistic, deaf phrase.  It stabs me in the ears.



4. What word has been your (recent or past) muse?


Brimming.  Early on in my writing, while I was working on the story where I first understood the writer that I am, I kept seeing a chalice brimming with red wine.  Neither the chalice nor the wine had anything to do with the story.  It was merely an image that told me how perfectly I must fill the story with the sorrow that was at its core. To have it so full.  To have it just so full, almost too much, but not too much.  To have it also be beautiful.



5. When I think of your writing, particularly in The Sin Eater and Other Stories, the word I think of is precision. Not precision in its hard, calculating sense but in terms of its exactitude, its accuracy, its care. I think of what Kung-fu Tze said: that “all wisdom is rooted in learning to call things by the right name.” I wonder if you could speak to your process of wording, of naming.


In my early writings, I wasn’t precise.  I used to build fat rooms of velvety, lyrical prose.  I’d invite people in and they would smoke hashish and drink honey wine and roll around.  One day, though, someone sat up and said, “Wait, this is lovely, but what the hell does it mean?”  And all my texts crumbled.

In terms of process, now, it still doesn’t begin in precision.  I pound the thing out of the world with the bluntest, dullest tools. I am also partially blind and deaf at this phase.  I follow a single strand of golden idea that I have either seen or perhaps only dreamt of seeing.  I crash around the cave walls, moaning and hacking at what I bump into.  I hope, stupidly and optimistically, that something will be there.  This can take days or years, depending on the project.  Eventually, there’s some light.

I make many, many, many drafts.  Each one increases my sight and understanding.  I’ve learned to point myself, and the reader, in.  I mercilessly surgeon the thing as time goes on.  Lines I once loved I snip away and don’t save.  I carve away bone.  I trim.  I rig up to electricity.  I go from Stone Age to modernity every time.



6. Is there a word for which you would like to rewrite the definition? What word? What does it really mean?


Bin. My husband has long become used to the fact that I call any vessel that holds other things a “bin.”  Socks are bins.  Cups are bins.  Purses are bins.  Paper bags are bins.  A cupped hand can be a bin.  As in, “Hand me that bin, will ya?”



7. Please respond to the following words and definitions*, picked exclusively at random for you:



(en),  n.  1.  in mathematics, the symbol for an indefinite number: see nth.  2.  in physics,, the symbol for neutron.


This is the level to which I have vowed to take the risks of living fully.



flat·ware  (ˈflatˌwe(ə)r),  n.  flat table utensils, as knives, forks, and spoons, or plates, platters, etc.


Any friend of mine will tell you that I want to know what you ate.  I want to know what you had for lunch or dinner.  And I usually remember it.  I ponder it for days.  Why does X eat that?  Why doesn’t Y like that?  I wonder how to cook some of these things.  I store information for future trips to restaurants or grocery stores.  In 2001, a teenager I knew got the house Lo Mein with beef, chicken and shrimp at Oriental Pearl for lunch.  If she didn’t get that, she got the egg salad sandwich at the Bread Board. A phone call to my sister the other night revealed the news that she’d had an antipasto salad and then, cannoli.   I had a boyfriend who loved pepsi and fried fish.  I have a friend who can’t eat any white food.  I have a new friend, who, I’m told, will always order meatballs if they are on any menu.  A friend in NYC has posted several pictures of various plates of sausages and pickles, which she labels: tv snacks.  Another friend ate so many lentils in his crappy flat in Scotland 20 years ago that he still hates them.  My brother-in-law hates stinky cheese.  A friend loves pickled herring.  My nephew loves berries.  It is character.  This is all character study. I study humanity this way, by what it eats with flatware.



rat·toon  (răt`tŌn´),  n. & v.i.  ratoon

rat·oon  (răt`tŌn´),  n.  [Sp. retoño; Hind. ratun], a shoot growing from the root of a plant (especially the sugar cane) that has been cut down.  v.i.  to grow new shoots, or grow as a new shoot, from the root of a plant that has een cut down. also spelled rattoon.


My writing is always concerned with rebirth. Possibility.  It is the most interesting thing about being human.

I love the idea that whenever we tell apocalypse stories, it is about what happens after the apocalypse.  It’s about the ratoon that appears. The possibility of redemption is the most interesting thing in the world.




-gyn·ous  (jin-us), [Mod. L. –gynus. Gr. –gynos  gyne, a woman],  a combining form meaning:  1.  woman, female, as in polygynous2.  having female organs or pistils, as in monogynous, androgynous.


I’m not interested in the limitations of gender.  I’m interested in the possibilities of thinking beyond gender, beyond culture, beyond years, beyond geography. I’m interested in where the real “us” lives.  The us-ness of all humans.  This is why my writing has turned to history. It’s important to me to find what is the same about characters in 1750 and the people I spend my days with.   If I had a spiritual task, it would be to be able to write this truth finally, completely, clearly.



shape  (shāp),  n.  [ME. schap(e):  AS.  (ge)sceap, created thing  <  scieppan, to create, form;  IE. base *(s)qep, etc., to make with a sharp tool, as also in L. capo (cf. CAPON), Eng. Shaft],  1.  the quality of a thing that depends on the relative position of all points composing its outline or external surface; physical or spatial form.  2.  the form characteristic of a particular person or thing.  3.  the contour of the body, exclusive of the face; figure.  4.  assumed or feigned appearance; guise; as, an enemy in the shape of a friend.  5.  an imaginary or spectral form; phantom.  6.  something having a particular shape, used as a mold or basis for shaping or fashioning; form, as for making hats, molding gelatin, etc.  7.  any of the forms, structures, etc. in which a thing may exist or be embodied: as, dangers of every shape.  8.  definite, regular, or suitable form; orderly arrangement: as, his story began to take shape.  9.  [Colloq], condition; state, especially of health: as, the injured man was in bad shape.  v.t.  [SHAPED (shāpt), SHAPED or archaic SHAPEN (-‘n), SHAPING],  1.  to give definite shape to; make, as by cutting or moldng material.  2.  to arrange, fashion, express, or devise in definite form, as a plan, answer, etc.  3.  to adapt or adjust: as, shape your plans to your abilities.  4.  to direct or conduct, as one’s life, the course of events, etc.  5.  [Obs.], to appoint; decree; ordain.  v.i.  1.  [Rare], to become suited; conform.  2.  [Rare], to come about; happen.  3.  [Colloq.], to take shape or form (often with into).  –SYN. see form, make.


I love the shapes of living.  I love the shape of narrative as it plays out in a life.  How a random move, a trip, a lover, a choice will shape the rest of a person’s life.  My characters teach me this, if I didn’t know it from watching my family and friends.

So many people want an obvious, fill-able, prescribed shape to live into, but there isn’t one.

In fact, it is the truth that there isn’t one shape, that an infinity of life/story shapes exist, that makes me want to go on living.




Elizabeth Frankie Rollins’ debut collection of fiction, The Sin Eater & Other Stories, was released February 2013. Rollins has received a New Jersey Prose Fellowship and a Pushcart Prize Special Mention. She authored the chapbook, The Sin Eater, the novels, Origin, and Doctor Porchiat’s Dream, and has published work nationally in Conjunctions, Drunken Boat, Green Mountains Review, and The New England Review, among others. She lives and teaches writing in Tucson.  She brings the sin eater and other redemptive possibilities for modern maladies wherever she goes.



*Definitions taken from Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language: College Edition, copyright 1955

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cells in dish replicate schizophrenic brain


schiz·o·phre·ni·a (skitsəˈfrēnēə), n. [Mod. L. < schizo- + Gr. Phren, the mind] a mental disorder characterized by indifference, withdrawal, hallucinations, and delusions of persecution and omnipotence, often with unimpaired intelligence: a more inclusive term than demtnia praecox, avoiding the implications of age and deterioration.

For the second word this flash fiction february, we are honored to have pieces authored by two writers: Elizabeth Frankie Rollins (first) and Rebecca Iosca (second).



(In French, “aliéné” Means Mad)

Eloise couldn’t say.  The teachers asked.  The classrooms felt immense.  The teachers and the students seemed like giants moving around her.  In her French class, Eloise stared at a worksheet in front of her and the accents on the words looked like eyebrows.  She couldn’t read one French word, although she knew she used to be able to read some of them.  Now they looked like simple black marks.  She could barely fit the French words the teacher spoke into her head.  They were too big.  She wanted to put her hands over her ears, but she didn’t.  This would make them ask her more questions.

She didn’t want to think about it.

At lunch, she received her tray of macaroni, red jello square, and paper milk container, but she couldn’t remember where she usually sat.  She chose a table with girls.  As soon as she sat, as soon as they began ignoring her, she remembered that this wasn’t her usual table.  She’d only been gone a couple of weeks, but couldn’t remember things.  Even the air felt too big.  It hurt her ears.

There had been a lot of screaming.  But no, she didn’t want to think about it.

In science, they stood over plastic tubes and looked at liquids.  Her paper, where she was supposed to fill in the blanks with numbers, remained blank.  She didn’t even look at other students’ papers to fill hers in.  She stood at the table and stared at what they did, but she couldn’t put anything in the white blanks on her paper.

There had been a lot of messes. She hadn’t cleaned them up.  No one had.  Everything got sticky.

The Vice Principal came to check on her in the homeroom at the end of the day.  The Vice Principal’s first name was Barbara.  Eloise read this on the nametag, but she couldn’t pay attention to the last name.  Barbara the Vice Principal crouched in front of Eloise and spoke.  Her breath smelled like coffee and bologna.  Eloise was sick of breath.

There had been a lot of strong breath: whiskey breath, wine breath, stale breath, weeping breath, smoking breath, screaming breath.

Barbara the Vice Principal said something about Eloise’s mother.   Eloise stared at her.  She felt the air swallow her up, as if she was shrinking, as if her head was folding down on itself.  She stared at Barbara the Vice Principal, who said, “I can understand if you aren’t ready to talk about your mother yet, but I want you to know if you want to talk about it with me, any time, you can.”

There had been a lot of talk about things Eloise didn’t understand.  Real estate, avocado growers, pantyhose, poisoned water, why people should learn French, why no one should have telephones, what good girls did, who was a really great singer, and people out to get you.

When Barbara the Vice Principal asked, “Eloise, are you listening?”  Eloise couldn’t say.

The dinner table at the Gershens was set with plastic tablemats picturing strawberries with legs.  Folded paper napkins sat on the mats, and forks and knives on top of the napkins.  It was only Eloise and Mr. Gershen and Mrs. Gershen at the table.  They didn’t have children. There was meatloaf and orange macaroni and cheese and a very big piece of broccoli on Eloise’s plate. Eloise ate some of everything. She knew that you had to plan meatloaf.  You had to cook it in the oven.  She knew it wasn’t easy, she knew that cooking wasn’t easy.  She understood that some things weren’t easy and you shouldn’t ask for them.  But she hadn’t asked for this and she liked it.

There had been food, but usually it was “craving” food.  Craving food came in greasy paper wrappers or sticky sweet cellophane.  In cardboard boxes or styrofoam bowls.  If you didn’t eat it fast, you weren’t really craving it, and you shouldn’t take it from the people who were craving it.

There had been a lot of smoking and the ashtrays got really full and spilled onto the table or counter.  There were a lot of ashes on the floor, too, from cigarettes being waved around.  Eloise washed her feet sometimes, when they turned black on the bottoms.

There had been crying and apologies and yelling and then the longest silence.  It was the longest silence that sent Eloise to the neighbors and then the police came, and an ambulance, and Eloise had not even gotten to say “good morning,” or “good bye” and now she was living at the Gershens and she’d gone back to school as if nothing had happened but everything had happened and she hadn’t even said “good bye” and now she had to go to French class where nothing made any sense at all, though everyone else pretended like it did.

Eloise took the clean dishtowel with smiling kettles and teacups and wiped the plates that Mrs. Gershen handed her.  She wiped them dry, around and around and around.  Mrs. Gershen took them from her and placed them neatly in the cabinet.  Click. Click.

Mrs. Gershen turned and looked down at her and said that there had been a call from the hospital where they were keeping her mother for observation, but Eloise had not even said “good morning” or “good bye,” so she stared hard at the framed needlepoint on the wall which said Gershen in fancy letters, circled by mice and cheese and mustard pots.   The mustard pots were white with red stripes around the rims.  She nodded when Mrs. Gershen stopped talking and handed back the kettle towel.

When Mrs. Gershen asked, “Eloise, we all want to help you, you know that, don’t you?”  Eloise couldn’t say.



Elizabeth Frankie Rollins has published work in Conjunctions, Green Mountains Review, Trickhouse, The New England Review, and The Cincinnati Review, among others.  An excerpt from her novel, Origin, will soon appear in Drunken Boat. Author of The Sin Eater, Corvid Press, she’s previously received a New Jersey Prose Fellowship and a Special Mention in the Pushcart Prize Anthology. She teaches writing at Pima Community College and the University of Arizona Poetry Center.  Installments of Origin and short fiction can be found here:  www.madamekaramazov.com



cells in dish replicate schizophrenic brain

Rosemary, in LA I became you. Some memory of the way you rode the bus away from home, from your father really, who scared you so badly you hid under the table. The first time they thought something was wrong it wasn’t because you were scared (they both knew he could be scary even though they never admitted it to you), but because you were meowing, quietly at first and then with more feeling, crouched under the table.  You were twelve. Did he tell you then to become an actress because you were being so dramatic?  I don’t know if he ever hit you, but I know you tried to snap a woman’s neck once and almost succeeded.  You walked like you were still 300 pounds, but you’d lost weight and all of your teeth.  Or maybe it’s more true to say that when you’d lost most of them, the rest were pulled. It was the only service covered by your dental plan by then.

No wonder you were angry.  The side effects of how you had to live would be enough to make me angry, but to think directly of the main axes of truth in your life. Or if not truth, some version of mundane reality.  Locked up in a building that smelled of far-gone yesterdays and surrounded by paint shades too dark to catch the little northwestern light that landed in your room.  The one chair out on the smoke-porch that was the only one you understood. You got in fights about it because nobody could understand you having a chair that was the only one you understood. Your mother sent you things you might need at logical intervals, but there were no cards, no little gifts, no Christmas presents even though you still counted down the days gleefully every year. What you called “giving birth,” the rest of the world called “having an accident in the middle of the night.” Your baby, then, a yellow stain that no one wanted to manage.  In the morning after so many of my arrivals, plastic gloves, biohazard bags, and a trip to the laundry room. But not after you told me her name. It was usually the same each time: “little glow.” Years later, I learn of the Spanish phrase “to give a light” for birth, and I think of the landscapes you won’t ever see.

By the time you were 18, you’d hopped a bus to Hollywood, but your chart said nothing else.  You spoke of acting, and I can imagine a time when catching a break in Hollywood seemed plausible or at least possible.  I would have believed you were a model. In your face, a deep beauty and in your movements an unswerving confidence.  But you told me you were on that cruise the year before I met you, when you had already lost your teeth, already lost so much more than your teeth.  You looked so happy recounting the places you’d visited, and I wondered then about whether it wasn’t something of a blessing to remember a history that is not your own. A kind of imagination-in-reverse function. If your days are spent smoking cigarettes until your fingers yellow and finding your only real comfort is a stuffed horse who sits on your narrow bed in your narrow, urine-soaked room, how obliging of your mind to take you on a cruise, show you the beauty of the world, reflect your beauty to you in the eyes of off-stage admirers? How obliging of your mind to give you a baby every morning instead of a mess to clean up and the knowledge that your body is past being able to carry one.

I was not in Hollywood, but in LA I saw trees like prehistoric towers lining the streets and watched a film in 3-D about Pina Bausch.  In the theater I became you, for a moment, seeing the world in front of me in blurry multiple, edge over edge, until I put on glasses that made the multiplicity three-dimensional and single. I want to say singular, and it was that too.  I felt, suddenly, your frustration at trying to explain that the world is round and alive and moving quickly toward you when everyone else could see only blurry flatness taken for the extent of what was there to be seen. It’s a wonder you never gave up trying to explain what was there for you, in stereo, in stereoscopic 3-D, as we unfocused our vision, trying to make the world as we knew it more clear or at least contiguous.  And who would have believed you anyway, if you’d somehow managed to fashion paper spectacles with blue and red lenses, and shouted triumphantly that finally we might see your reality?  You probably would have been written up, the glasses discarded as a quaint craft project or some other artifact of delusion.

When people say “schizophrenic,” so often what is heard is “split,” “broken,” or “out of touch with reality.” Your diagnosis was based on the concept of emotions split from thought, but who can say what emotions are called for anyway, or who is more colonized by perplexing delusions than anyone else?  And who is to say what of reality there is to touch, and what edges, what whole planes in fact, we might be missing in our smug perceptions?  Can empiricism explain the way you spoke of my father, but never my mother, except to say, at times, that you were my mother?  Can scientific inquiry measure the chances that of all the names you could have taken on once you were sent away to the state hospital, you chose my mother’s and called for me like I was your daughter?



Rebecca Iosca feels grateful to have become friends with Lisa, the resident logophile of The Dictionary Project, through the University of Arizona’s MFA program, and has worked with a number of amazing people who happen to be diagnosed with schizophrenia.

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