The Masters Review is pleased to introduce the first of four interviews this month, starting with a discussion on flash fiction with author, Ashley Farmer. We recently reviewed Farmer’s new story collection, Beside Myself, published by Tiny Hardcore Press in March, and were so taken with her, she was a staff favorite for this interview. Ashley Farmer is a magician. Her work is spellbinding, and she knows her way in and around this material like only the best can. Take a look as Masters Review editor Sadye Teiser chats with a writer who has quickly become one of our all-time favorites.
Interview with Ashley Farmer
I absolutely loved Beside Myself, your new collection of stories. One of the things that I liked most is the way that you give the imagination a physical presence in your prose. I’m talking about sentences like: “My idea of a neighbor is patient, rocking.” Or, as the narrator remembers looking at a house as a child: “My grown self flickered like heat in the kitchen.” How do you achieve this? Is this something that is easier to do in a shorter form? Was this sort of interplay of fantasy and reality something you were consciously trying to achieve in these stories?
I’m interested in the role imagination plays in our memories and the decisions we make. I feel like the characters in Beside Myself are often drawn into imaginary worlds as a means of understanding their choices, reconciling themselves to who they’ve become, or making themselves feel a little more alive. There’s a lot of retreating from conscious reality and into daydreams. In a way this mirrors the act of writing fiction, and reading, too––that process of going away from one world and into another. It’s a lot like sleep. Someone once pointed out that there’s a lot of sleeping in the book. It’s kind of funny to me in hindsight—characters falling asleep. In regards to that aspect alone, I think the short form allows for things a longer narrative might not.
Because so much of your fiction is about the presence of imagination in our lives, I have to ask: Where do your ideas come from? Do any of them come from dreams?
Many of my stories do come from dreams, or at least parts of the stories do. I’m a rookie sleeper—it has never come very easily to me—but when I do sleep deeply, I’m pretty great at dreaming. When I was a kid, I’d dream so vividly sometimes I’d wake up and, even an hour later, be uncertain as to whether or not I was still dreaming (something I was too embarrassed to ask my parents to confirm). I went for a sleep study recently (though I couldn’t fall asleep for it) to try to figure it out. But maybe there’s value in the predicament because I feel a strong connection to the logic of that dream place and I’m interested in it. I’m fascinated with what’s revealed to us there and I feel like it’s always just barely out of reach even when we’re awake. I like how we’re naked (figuratively and sometimes literally) in dreams, how we dream in symbols, how subconscious fears and absurdities and the dearly departed show up for us. I even like other people’s dreams. You know how they say that the quickest way to bore a person is to tell her your dreams? I’m not that person—I’ll listen to them. I’ll eat them up.
I think that memory operates similarly for me and plays that role in my work. My husband has the most intense, precise memory of anyone I know—it’s naturally linear, orderly, omits nothing. It freaks me out. By comparison I’ve come to see that I remember even some of my most important moments in brief images, in sensory perceptions, sometimes in a less-than-tangible feeling. Much how I’ll remember a dream. For instance, I can recall the story of a car accident—what happened and where and how—but the potent memory is just some sunlight shining on the broken glass. Stories are alive for me in images or the flecks of narratives, sometimes in those little parts that fly off. So some of the stories in Beside Myself originated from that place, too.
In your interview with The Rumpus, you mentioned your interest in hybridity and said that the pieces in Beside Myself “are probably closer to poems, or at least straddle that line.” While hybridity is interesting, and the influence of poetry on your work is clear, I have to say that, to me, these are stories! Though some cannot be neatly summarized in terms of plot, they have characters and dimension; they point to whole emotional worlds outside themselves. I think the fact that Beside Myself is identified as a collection of stories is important because it shows how the definition of the short story is broadening. My question is: how do you see these as stories, or is that not a distinction you are concerned with?
Thank you. I love this tricky question because I’ve never really settled it with myself. My impulse has been not to worry too much about the distinction. I once took a class with Christopher Kennedy (a generous mentor and a wizard of both poetry and the short form) in which we read various books that straddled that prose/poetry line. The course inquiry was something like: Are these collections of poems or stories and what makes it so? Why? How do we know? The discussion was so valuable and the examination important to us as readers and writers (and many of us were writing both poetry and fiction). My takeaway was that there’s often something subjective about the distinction. And I feel like ultimately the reader makes it. (I also found myself most interested in the works that were hardest to label….)
The pieces in Beside Myself felt to me like these interconnected wind-up toys or dioramas I played around with for a long time. Some were originally written in verse: I learned that it’s useful to write in verse when you’re considering your every word and cadence, which I was trying to do. But after a while, verse didn’t make sense, especially because I was actively working to achieve congruity between the pieces and consciously writing about the same world and the same characters within it. Finally, I had a manuscript in front of me and I had to call it something. Ultimately, they felt more like stories than poems. That still feels like the truer thing.
Then a funny thing happens because you tell people you have a little book of stories and they’re kind enough to read it and then they quietly come back to you and ask, “Why don’t the characters have names? Why are some stories only twenty-six words long?” And you’re back to where you started, thinking I suppose they have a point…
Mostly, I just cared about tinkering in that world until it felt complete and whole. They feel like stories to me (and I’m happy that they do to you, too) but I understand that to some people they might not. Which is okay by me.
I’ve also never heard you identify your pieces as flash fiction. Still, they ostensibly fall into this category: the majority are stories of 1,000 words or fewer. Do you find this label helpful?
You know, I’m of two minds. On one hand, I’m not so interested in labels. Maybe I’m even a bit of a contrarian. Because, as a reader, I’m happy and curious when I encounter projects that I can’t quite categorize, that I have to puzzle through, or that don’t necessarily align with a certain definition. I’ve never minded that ambiguity, never felt troubled by it—I find the challenge of holding something up and asking what it is enticing.
On the other hand, I think the term “flash fiction” is certainly valuable. This form has a rich tradition and community. It’s a form with its own masters, its own dedicated publications/presses, and its own wild, distinguished history. I also imagine that there’s something legitimizing about the term, particularly when it comes to readers (if these readers exist!) who might be mistaken about what the form is. Maybe there are people who read a piece of flash and perceive it as something that, in their eyes, should be doing more of Y or Z. I think the term—the existence of the category—says No, this is a story within a particular form. This form has its own conventions and parameters and challenges. You have to read it a little bit differently.
I also think the label is valuable because this form of storytelling will only grow deeper and richer. We’re already lucky enough to have great anthologies of short form fiction, there are people innovating with it in mixed genre/digital formats, there are serious students studying it, and there are wider audiences embracing it. So there’s value in pinning a name to all of that, I think.
Do you find there is a freedom that comes from working with a shorter form? In your Rumpus interview, you also mentioned that you are now writing longer form stories, so I am curious about how your experience with this form differs.
For me, the beauty of the short form is this paradox of freedom within constraint. Revision in the short form always means (for me) economy, compression, attention to language—it’s a revision process in only one (shorter) direction. I don’t think I’ve ever thought to myself Flesh this out. Develop this. I don’t think any story of mine has grown longer.
In the process of cutting away, you uncover possibilities and weird, unintended treasures. And: you make tightrope moves you might not get away with in a longer narrative. There’s a risk to it that I love, because there’s also such potential for what you can accomplish. I mean, you only have a little bit of space but if you use it in the best way possible, you create a portal to another place. You only have someone’s attention for a few seconds, but if you hold that attention and care for it, you can connect so deeply with a reader in that moment. You only have so many words, but if you’re choosing them well, you evoke a full-fledged character and the particulars of their world.
There’s the one-sentence Amy Hempel story “Memoir”: “Just once in my life—oh, when have I ever wanted anything just once in my life?” For a while now, I’ve thought about this story almost every day. I’ll be drinking coffee or walking to the car or trying to fall asleep and it’ll come to me like a song in my head. To me, that’s a story that evokes a specific character, a character’s history—the way that person has lived her entire life—and an epiphany. I don’t need to see the trees in her yard or hear the song on the radio or learn her parents’ names. For me, that story does everything I want a story to do. It fulfills its obligations as a story (if you can say that a story owes us anything), yet the fact that it’s so spare makes it feel intimate to me, like it’s something I can hold onto. And I have. I feel like it belongs to me in a way that a larger, fuller story might not.
I feel like longer narratives require a different set of complex moves, a different set of instincts, a different muscle group. I wrote a novel draft last summer and even the physicality of it, the different kind of attention I had to bring felt so foreign to me. I thought, Oh, this is what my novelist friends are doing on their couches or at their desks. And it was so challenging. I’m not sure the novel was anything more than conditioning—I don’t know that it could amount to anything even with ruthless revision—but because of the practice it gave me, I’m enjoying the feel of writing longer stories and a nonfiction project that will probably take me years to finish. They’re different experiments. Rather than compressing and distilling, I think it’s (for me) about a lighter hand, a softer touch. At least through the first round of drafting.
For short story month: what are some of your favorite (short?) short story collections?
It’s so hard to name favorites (and I’m not sure that all of these writers would agree with their inclusion on a short or short short list), but these have been my go-to inspirations for this particular short short project: Christopher Kennedy’s Encouragement for a Man Falling to His Death. Etgar Keret’s The Girl on the Fridge. Roxane Gay’s Ayiti. Gary Lutz’s Stories in the Worst Way. Aimee Bender’s The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis. Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s. Excitability by Diane Williams. Rescuers of Skydivers Search Among the Clouds by Patrick Lawler. So many individual pieces by Jamaica Kincaid, Christine Schutt, Daniil Kharms, Russell Edson, and Amy Hempel. Both Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan.
Your stories often have surreal elements. These surreal images feel like organic parts of your prose, totally at place in the worlds you have built. (Like this sentence: “The rain became snow and the snow became women—he held his palm out, their nakedness heavier than he’d thought.”) Where does the surreal in your stories come from? Do you begin with a surreal idea, or do these images evolve as you write the story? Do you find the shorter form is an especially good container for the surreal?
Sometimes the surreal elements come from following the language, either by letting it lead or allowing the words to gather in ways that are unexpected. Sometimes it comes from considering a metaphor that feels right for the character or moment and then following it out as far as it can go. Sometimes it comes from the place I have in mind—the literal, actual landscape in which I picture these stories occurring—because, although nothing surreal has ever happened to me on the river bank or in the woods behind my old house, I had the sense that it certainly could. And often when it comes to the surreal, I find inspiration in the visual (and sometimes the accidental): photography books from the library, movies and television, seeing a sign on a billboard and reading one of the words incorrectly, my computer freezing during a certain moment of the news streaming.
I love what you’ve written: proposing that the shorter form is “a container for the surreal.” I’ve never thought about it that way, but I think that’s exactly right. It feels like the surreal possibility is only possible for so long and that the short form can hold the moment in which it occurs. It would be difficult, I think, to write a long piece about the man catching women in his palm. I suppose the women would eventually have to turn back into snow and then back into drizzle—they couldn’t go on that way, falling for pages. And, of course, he’d have to go to work the next day and he’d probably bring an umbrella only to encounter some different predicament, maybe a bus splashing the cuffs of his pants. By then the women would be evaporating or long-gone. Maybe it could be a good story if someone else wrote it. I don’t know. I think I’m mostly curious about that moment of surprise when he first feels them there in his hand.
Thank you for the close reading and insightful questions, Sadye. This was fun.
Interviewed by Sadye Teiser