Satanic Majesty

A FEW YEARS ago, when she was still writing film reviews for the Tucson Weekly, Stacey Richter told me she'd won a prize for a short story. A few months later, she passed along a copy of the story, "The Beauty Treatment," in The Mississippi Review, a journal of short fiction dedicated to publishing the work of emerging writers.

That night, I read the story, about an upper-class Phoenix high-school girl whose face is slashed open by her best friend after an argument about pop music. I was astonished by Richter's smooth, authentic first-person voice, and I knew she was destined for the Big Time.

Evidently, I wasn't her only fan. "The Beauty Treatment" won a prestigious Pushcart Prize, awarded to the best short fiction published in literary journals. When the story was published in the Pushcart anthology last year, it caught the attention of the New York publishing world -- and now, just about a year later, Richter is celebrating her publishing debut with My Date With Satan (Scribner), a collection of 13 short stories. This summer, her work is appearing in GQ, Seventeen and Granta.

"It was a rapid development from being an unknown writer," says the 34-year-old Richter, who still lives here in Tucson. "It was kinda freaky."

But not nearly as freaky as the characters who inhabit Richter's fictional world. They're an odd collection of misfits, from heavy-metal Goth rockers to former child stars, who are seeking some kind of meaning in the curious cultural cross-currents that are driving us into the 21st century. As the author explains: "I like people who have a little self-awareness, but not enough."

The title story, about a dominatrix who meets an online acquaintance in the flesh, has some readers and reviewers confused about the book's content. "People think the book is about dating," Richter says. "It's about pets and taking drugs."

But there's also romance, although most of that's pretty freaky, too -- romance between a rock star and a groupie, between a stranded castaway and an island of primitive men, between a cat lady and a rat boy.

Richter's stories, funny and sad and brilliant all at once, are also tinged with strange scientific tidbits, about cryonics and UFOs and anthropology. "I like information," Richter says. "I want my stories to be educational, kind of in a Schoolhouse Rock kind of way, where you learn a little thing and it doesn't really mean much and you never use it, but it just sticks in your head."

Her story "The First Men," about an unstable high-school teacher who runs up a debt with her drug-dealing students, was partially inspired by a book called The First Men, written by Edmund White. "But a lot of the information, the educational stuff I have in my stories, is wrong or out of date," Richter laughs. "I like to read old encyclopedias, so it's completely outdated information,and I just use it anyway, because my characters aren't necessarily sophisticated enough to know what they're talking about."

Last year, The Weekly published "On The Anniversary Of The Event," a tale about the year the Fourth Avenue Street Fair was eaten by a giant lizard.

Interested in reading more of Richter's fiction? Try "The Beauty Treatment," available at Barnes and Noble's online site, or "The Ocean," which was published online by Nerve magazine.

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