Ashleigh Bryant Phillips whose debut story collection, Sleepovers, was published in June by Hub City Press.
Lauren Groff author of five books, most recently Florida, published by Riverhead Books in 2018.
ONLY a few sentences into the first story in Ashleigh Bryant Phillips’s brilliant debut collection, Sleepovers, I understood that I was holding something like a live wire in my hands: dangerous, potent, with an astonishing power to illuminate. I hadn’t even set it down before I knew it would win the C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book Prize, for which I was the 2019 judge.
The very short stories in the collection move in the same corner of rural North Carolina where Phillips is from, each story painting its own vivid vision so that, by the end of the book, through specificity and some sort of dazzling wizardry, the place rises up like a living hallucination around the reader. This is a world in which dressed-up taxidermied squirrels become a window into a better life, where prayers about the unspeakable build until they nearly burst, where girls dream themselves into does. Sleepovers is a first book by a wild, true talent.
Can you tell me about when and how you first started writing these stories?
I had been working on some of the stories in Sleepovers since childhood, putting two and two together in my head. And in other cases the stories already existed before I was born; I was just the one that came along and heard them and decided to write them down. Also, when you’re naturally observant and sensitive, you’re going to see and feel a lot of hurt. And it’s a real heavy load. I grew up in the Southern Baptist church, where you lay down your burdens at Jesus’s feet in prayer. I was very shy as a child and just took to writing these burdens out in my diary instead. But later, when I got to college, I discovered the short story form. I also realized that there weren’t many people like my people in those short stories either. Then my Shakespeare professor told me about this Appalachian guy he went to school with who wrote about where he was from named Breece D’J Pancake. And how even though I wasn’t Appalachian, he wanted me to read Breece’s stories anyway. My professor sent me home with Breece’s only collection of short stories, and for the first time I felt truly seen on the page. After that I knew the hurts of home didn’t have to go unaccounted for. So this gave me some permission to write these stories out too. It would be everything for a little girl in Woodland, North Carolina, to be able to hold a book in her hand and recognize the places mentioned.
How do you feel about the collection coming into the world in this strange, fraught time?
I’m scared. And it doesn’t feel good asking people to buy your book when folks are still waiting for unemployment checks to come or trying to pay for a funeral. I only hope that the folks who do find their way to Sleepovers might be moved by it and will share it with others.
How did you know you had a cohesive collection that was ready to go into the world?
I didn’t know it was ready. When I defended the collection for my thesis [at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington], my committee loved it but told me it wasn’t ready just yet. They told me to keep tightening it up. Two years passed and I hadn’t really worked on it much. But at that point, I’d moved back home to be closer to my daddy while he was passing away. And all I could afford to rent was a very old wooden house a block away from the house I grew up in. I struggled to find work, and for a time I cleaned my cousin’s hunting lodges. My other cousin paid my gas bill so I’d have heat that winter. I knew that after my daddy passed, I wouldn’t have any money to move away. I needed money, and [Hub City Press’s C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book Prize] came with $10,000. I threw whatever new work I’d written since I’d been home into the old thesis, and it met the minimum page count needed to enter the contest. I titled the manuscript “Sleepovers,” sent it off, and said some prayers.
The place of these stories has a familial feel to it. Your characters speak of their home the way one would speak of a black-sheep cousin: a little bit wild, a little messed up but, no matter what happens, always deeply loved. How do you negotiate writing fiction about a specific place that you know so well?
I don’t think about this too much. I heard stories my whole life about every one of my family members anyone could remember. And when I heard those stories, I was in the same yard or the same kitchen where they occurred. There’s nothing more powerful than a greataunt or granny back home telling old stories about your kin. Because it’s not just about being in the place where it all happened; it’s about the structure and the cadence of the storytelling. It’s so succinct and brilliant. The storytelling isn’t meant to wow you with its dazzling sentences or metaphors. It’s meant to tell you what you need to know in a short amount of time with the most important details you’ll need to carry the story with you forever. You can end up hearing the life stories of a couple different family members over the course of mashing potatoes or silking corn. And the sounds of the words in this storytelling—it’s music. Because that helps you remember what’s important too. You can never forget hearing a story like that. So I aim to write my fiction in the same vein, succinct and with just the right amount of music and details for the reader to remember it. And this keeps me from telling the reader too much.
Your characters, too, are swiftly and clearly drawn, which is so tricky to do when you’re writing about a known place. What do the people you know and love think about your writing about this place? Is there some small, new anxiety in them, a feeling as though as a writer you’re a spy in the house?
When I was little I kept a list of all the places I wanted to go in the back of my diary: Japan, Ireland, Egypt, India. I was always looking to the world outside home. I was the only person in my school who read Rolling Stone at lunch. I scoured the high channels late at night to see any movie I could find with subtitles so I could hear a foreign language. I was deathly scared of getting stuck there, and it was highly possible. I could count on one hand how many people I knew who had been on an airplane. And then when I went away to college, all the stories I wrote were from home. When Mama found out about this, it really tickled her. I remember when I came back home during my MFA for a visit and my family went uptown to the café for supper. A neighbor nodded to my mama and said, “I see she’s back home with ya.” “Yeah, she’s my li’l’ writer,” she said. “And you won’t believe what she writes about,” and then Mama opened up her arms like she was showing you the lay of the land and said, “Around here, little old Woodland.” After this my aunt Dorice, who gifted me my first diary, recommended I submit to Ladies’ Home Journal and Redbook and would tell me people I needed to write stories about. So I haven’t sensed any anxiety yet, just pride. But I’m sure that’ll change once folks back home read the collection. And I’m ready for that, too. Nothing worthwhile has ever been just roses; it’s a hard row to hoe.
There’s such a feeling of peril in these stories, a good deal of violence just barely glimpsed from the corner of the eye. Your philosophy of violence feels so different from what I’m used to. How do you envision the role of violence in your fiction?
I grew up singing old hymns with my family about how Jesus’s blood would save me. My granddaddy didn’t want to chop a copperhead snake in front of me and my sister with the garden hoe, but he had to do it so the snake wouldn’t get us. True to one of my aunt’s old wives’ tales, tomcats would sometimes kill their kittens in March. About every year the papers at home tell about a local “down-and-out” woman who abused her children. The last one was my mama’s neighbor. The woman threw her child away in the trash. Many men back home commit suicide, and if you didn’t know them, they worked with your cousin or were members of your aunt’s church. The young man who robbed my aunt when my uncle was dying in the hospital—and was never caught—rear-ended me one day. We got out and looked at my bumper, and there was just a little scrape and I told him it was fine. But the whole time I was with him, I was thinking about the pain he’d caused my family. I watched him drive off to where he was staying, a little house where his teenage cousin had just shot his uncle dead. It never stops. So I would envision violence to be ever-present in my fiction. I’m not choosing to do so; it’s just there, and it’s happening all the time. And it doesn’t matter if you’ve “come to peace” with it or not; the hurt still lingers. You wear your dead family member’s clothes. And deer that get hit in the road stay out there for months.
Jean Kyoung Frazier whose debut novel, Pizza Girl, was published in June by Doubleday.
Bryan Washington author of two books, including Memorial, forthcoming in October from Riverhead Books.
IT IS start l ing to come across a familiar voice on the page: not familiar because we’ve heard it before—we absolutely haven’t—but rather because it speaks a narrative we know we will return to, and turn toward, time and time again, for the rest of our lives. Crafting even one of those voices would be a singular achievement, but Jean Kyoung Frazier weaves a chorus from the quotidian to create something new in her novel, Pizza Girl, sculpting characters and a community that we’ll know and love and leave and loathe and forgive and, ultimately, understand. Frazier does this while giving each of her characters humanity and the clarity to act with the benefit of the doubt—the rarest of gestures from a debut author. Frazier lives in Los Angeles, but her work can now live on our bookshelves. In a moment when truly good things can be hard to come by, the publication of this debut novel is all the more fortunate.
Could you talk a bit about the narrator’s inception and any changes that came along when crafting the character across your editing process?
Long story short: I found her voice in my e-mail inbox. It was the fall of 2017, and my girlfriend at the time was threatening to break up with me. She had discovered that I had over 50,000 unread e-mails and thought this spoke volumes about my commitment issues. We were obviously having a bunch of other problems, too, but this felt like one I could actually fix, so, little by little, I started deleting e-mails.
Everything was fine until I got to the 2011 section of my inbox and found messages I’d sent my first love. There were thousands of them. I read every single one, and by the end I just wanted to pop a couple Advil and turn off all the lights in my apartment. I could barely recognize myself in those e-mails.
This can’t be overstated: I’m very happy I’m not eighteen anymore. But I also have so much love for the theme who wrote those e-mails. She was sloppy, reckless, foolish, terrible haircut, really fucking beautiful. The coming-of-age genre is overcrowded for a reason—we’ve all gone through it or will have to.
I’d been toying with the idea of writing a novel about a pizza delivery girl falling into obsession with one of her customers, but it wasn’t until I read those e-mails that I began to actively work on it, that it felt crucial to write about that age before it was too far in my rear-view mirror. It felt important to capture it as honestly as I could, the up and down, the pain and joy. Once I committed to that mindset, the voice came pretty naturally, the unabashed sentimentality of it work ing well against the novel’s harsh reality—a budding alcoholic, pregnant, eighteen-year-old pizza delivery girl.
Throughout the novel, I wondered what you thought Pizza Girl was in conversation with—whether it’s other books, films, music, or moments in your life. The novel seems to refuse to be anyone thing in particular, and the amount of technical work to pull that off seems like it was staggering.
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