Genie Gratto on a Kinetic Octopus That Shoots Fire Out of Its Tentacles

Genie Gratto on a Kinetic Octopus That Shoots Fire Out of Its Tentacles

An interview with Genie Gratto, from The Write Stuff series:

Genie Gratto lives and writes in Oakland. Her work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Night Train, and Monday Night, and she once lost a Literary Death Match to a valiant opponent who bested her at beer pong in the final battle. You can find her very short fiction and nonfiction at

When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?

I’m a director of marketing communications and public relations for a nonprofit. I’m a writer. I’m a mother. I’m a Burner.

What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?

There is never enough time, and I’m constantly exhausted. My days are a Sisyphean battle to stay on top of my relationship with my husband, my relationship with my son, work, home, and my writing. I find myself desperate for moments when I can just make everything stop, to quiet the noise in my head, to corral it in a series of lists so it’s not so damn cacophonous.

If someone said I want to do what do you do, what advice would you have for them?

I would tell them to sleep a lot as a child. Enjoy those naps, because later, you’re going to need to have stored up some stamina. I would tell them to squirrel away money in a can in the back corner of their closet. Forget about that money. Leave it there, and later, when you need to be able to go somewhere, to write, to be alone, you can take it out and spend it on what will most feed your soul.

Do you consider yourself successful? Why?

I consider myself successful in the socially-defined sense, but I constantly feel like I’m failing. I have a wonderful husband and a truly fun child and I live in a (rented) house and I am lucky to have a stable family life. I have a great job. I have delightful friends and some deep relationships. I have a few really good bottles of wine available to drink at the slightest provocation. But I constantly feel as if I’m failing in so many areas of my life, either because I haven’t finished my memoir, haven’t finished my to do list, haven’t hit inbox zero, haven’t cooked a decent meal in a few days, or haven’t maintained all my friend connections to my own (admittedly impossible) standards.

When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?

There’s a beautiful Teddy Saunders interpretation of Dr. Suess’ “Oh, The Places You’ll Go” that appeared on YouTube in January 2012. It captures, in so many ways, the magic and wonder and sadness and challenge and sheer joy I have experienced during my best years attending Burning Man. The video makes me teary-eyed with recognition every time I watch it, and it reminds me that, no matter how bad my day is, I’m less than a year from potentially returning to the Playa for more dusty experiences.

How much money do you have in your checking account?

It depends how close it is to payday. It has been a long time since I made a terrible $1000 math error that caused me to overdraw all my accounts, but I’m still known to cut it pretty close to a zero balance from time to time.

Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?

Caffeine in ample amounts. Naproxen sodium when my back flares up (getting old is a bitch). And cheese, daily, whether I need it or not.

What is your fondest memory?

In 2013, my husband and I extended our wedding celebration to Burning Man so we could have a ceremony out on the Playa. The night we picked was the third anniversary of the day we met, and we decided to have the ceremony on the back of El Pulpo Mecánico, a kinetic octopus that shoots fire out of each of its tentacles and its head. The octopus only holds so many riders, and our plan was to cruise the Playa at sunset and then hold the ceremony out in Deep Playa at the site of my husband’s art piece. Many of our friends tailed the octopus on bikes and in golf carts while we rode on the back, drinking champagne straight out of the bottle. There was a point, when the light had grown soft and pink and the sun was about to drop below the mountains that ring the Playa, that I stood on the back of El Pulpo, holding my husband’s hand in one hand and a bottle of champagne in the other, watching my friends’ bikes fan out behind us as we made a wide turn, and thought, “This is truly miraculous.”

What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?

A woman president. Teleportation. Guaranteed minimum income for all.

What is art? Is it necessary? Why?

Oh Lord. I’m not going to get into the debate over “what is art,” because this is not Facebook or Twitter, and I am drinking a beer while I write this and, therefore, refuse to summon Outrage. But necessary? Absolutely. What kind of world would this be without story and poetry and structures that exist for no other reason than to astound and music and photographs and paintings and drawings? This is not a rhetorical question, and I’m about to get bossy and tell you the answer: It would be a terrible, boring, grey, dry, ascetic world in which no one would have the tools with which to express the contents of their own hearts. For that reason, I’m particularly appalled by the current attack in Washington on the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. As a colleague said to me, if we cut all the funding for the arts and sciences, we have just entered a new version of the Dark Ages. I completely agree. That being said, I also think art can deliver one hell of a punch as a tool of the resistance. The stories we tell, the poems we craft, the songs we sing, the way we move our bodies on the stage and screen—all these things can change hearts and minds, and offer protest in such a powerful way. I believe in the incredible power of art to effect change, and in my own responsibility to lift my voice when and where I can.

What are you working on right now?

After the election dust settled in November, I started asking myself, “What can I alone do to contribute? What, besides money and phone calls, can I do that will both make a difference AND make a statement?”

Nearly 10 years ago, Betsy Lam encouraged me to begin a little project called 100 Proof — a blog capturing tiny stories, fictional and nonfictional, that say something in the briefest of ways possible.

I realized I could use that platform to resist, to express, to rage, and to document in a way only I can do. Therefore, on January 20, I kicked off The First 100 Days, a project in which I’m telling 100 stories, all of which fit into the 100 Proof model, and all of which document the darkness I see settling across this nation.

What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?

If I could spend all my time writing spare pieces of fiction and nonfiction and get paid for it, I’d do that in a heartbeat.

If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?

How much it costs to exist here. Artists struggle everywhere, but it feels like that struggle is increased by a factor of economic nonsense in this region. Plus, there’s a whole community of people who have deep roots here and don’t deserve to be forced out by the people who can actually afford to pay the obnoxiously high rents. I moved to Oakland specifically because I wanted to be party to and part of that long-standing culture that I think makes the Town great, and because I wanted to live in close proximity to what makes San Francisco a beautiful, fascinating city. I do not want to see unsustainable economics force out the people who created the history here, and who make this area interesting and truly great.

A night on the town: what does that mean to you?

My ideal nights out include good food, good drinks, and preferably some dancing or karaoke. But, now that I have a toddler, it means a very painful next morning that will, no doubt, be much earlier than I would like it to be.  

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?

One night, while I was still in college, I drove up with a friend after dark to a shopping center at the top of the hill in Staunton, Virginia. Part of the sprawling parking lot had been taken over by a semi-circle of trailers that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, and we discovered it was a freak show. Visitors walked through the trailers, which had the various items — a preserved baby whale, a two-headed fetus, etc. — each more shriveled and dusty than the one before, and each displayed behind glass as if they were each in their own aquarium or terrarium. There was no one around when we walked up but for the one guy at the booth taking admission fees, so we paid to go in, walked through, and left quickly, marveling at the solitary oddness of the whole experience.

What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?

With 50 words, I can write half a 100 Proof Story. If I’m quick, I can write a whole one, with room for the reader to fill in details from their own experience. As for the money, if you send me 50 dollars, I’ll tell you how I spent it.

What are some of your favorite smells?

Freshly mown grass. Rain on a stretch of rural blacktop. Garlic sautéing in olive oil. Chlorine. Prell shampoo (do they even make that anymore?). Tomato leaves crushed between my fingers. The incense used during a Catholic Mass. My mother’s spaghetti sauce simmering on the stove. Bacon frying. Gasoline. Lavender. The inside of a closed garage on a hot summer day in Baltimore. Roasted chicken fresh from the oven. A campfire. The inside of a violin case, which smells like polished wood and rosin and crushed velvet. The well-worn fur of the rabbit puppet I got when I was four.

If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?

Could I do a combination three-month private molecular gastronomy intensive with Grant Achatz half the day and be allowed to write the other half of the day, but still get to hang out with my husband and kid at night and on weekends? Because that would be perfection.

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