An Interview with Amelia Gray
This interview was conducted by Dolan Morgan in issue 2 of The Atlas Review, Fall 2013. Amelia Gray’s highly anticipated collection Gutshot recently published with FSG. Read on for this extraordinary interview.
What are your plans for the rest of today?
I’m meeting up with my lady friends Carolyn and Nikki in an hour for lunch, and then I really should do a load of laundry and mop the floor and make dinner. Steak and potatoes. Oh, there’s some corn. Maybe corn.
In all of your work, the stories arrive in short bursts. You’ve said the small chunks often come from images that you “write your way out of.” When you break out from a self-contained story, that’s the end of it, but in the case of a novel, you’re out of the frying pan and… into the rest of the book. How do you balance a daring escape from the one against the larger constraints of the other? Bonus: Does experience come in discrete bursts we have to verb our way out of?
With THREATS the deal was that I’d make the escape and then find myself in a new knotted situation. The scenes knotted tighter and required more of a planning sensibility than what I’ve required in a short story. I think ultimately it was the feeling of something coming to life and having a context. With the book I’m working on now, I’m experiencing a very different set of constraints and a different feeling of patience. I’ve been writing about kumquats all week, that kind of thing. Experience indeed is a series of days wondering if we’ll have corn for dinner and then one afternoon seeing a man die on the street.
Magic thrives in your work. You’ve said, “I don’t always write starting from fear but I think that’s where the unreal sinks the heaviest into my life.” I’m curious about the use of ‘the unreal’ and its relationship to fear. Do fantastical elements operate as in-flight entertainment on our way to the real meat/terror in stories, or is magic pivotal in puzzling through things that scare us? Bonus: What scares you, and how do you use magic to combat it?
You know when people describe horrifying things that happen to them or which they witness, they’re often talking about the items and elements happening around the horrifying event? For example watching a man die on the street, you might find yourself distracted by a dog licking its little balls beside the man, or a tree containing red flowers and the bees in the tree observing the flowers, all of it giving impartial shade to the dying man, or similar. Juxtaposition is the thing of life. I don’t have a party position on the use of magic elements, but the items of juxtaposition in life often bring along their own magic. Perhaps it’s coping rather than combating.
Amélie Nothomb says she needs to be extremely hungry to write. What about you?
I never heard that. What a great idea. I’m drinking a smoothie right now. Writers seem very superstitious. I’ve never tried hunger. Lately I have a coffee and maybe some oatmeal. When I was writing THREATS I got to the point where I had to have a certain mug and a glass of milk, and then I had to have a certain kind of breakfast taco. It’s so funny to talk about these things. I like it, but I hope people don’t read process answers and worry they’re doing the wrong thing, you know? There’s an inventor named Yoshiro Nakamatsu who dives to the bottom of a pool with a waterproof chalkboard and comes up with his ideas half a second before he runs out of air. But you know, other people just hang out and think about stuff.
Inanimate objects are afforded great significance in your writing. We talk to a John Mayer tee shirt. Sugar bowls contain threats. They exert influence over and also illuminate elements of characters’ lives. Is this merely a device to expose character traits and efficiently build the world, or do you conceive of objects’ agency in your work as a reflection of their actual ability to structure/define our lives? Bonus: What object in your life exerts the most control over your writing?
I find it odd if a character doesn’t have a job or doesn’t eat breakfast or otherwise interact with the physical world around them, and so these elements are placed, and then a placed element I suppose gains some significance since it was placed. Right now there is a newspaper on the table in front of me, and my empty smoothie bottle, which I have placed into a bag, and I’m sitting on a lime-green chair on a sidewalk. I’m writing outside! I never do good fiction writing outside, but inside was worse because they were playing Paul Simon. I’m looking at that tree with the red poms. It’s all coming together. If it counts as an object or sub-object, the program in which I write on my computer has a stupid amount of control over the writing. I start drafts in Notepad because I can’t handle the Word formatting or page number or page count. It’s very unsafe, Notepad. I’ve lost whole stories. This interview is becoming about how I’m a neurotic mess.
In all of your work (and in AM/PM especially), the past is simultaneously gone/irretrievable and here, plaguing us. Characters grapple with time’s irrevocability and a desire to relive histories. In Threats, the story hinges on an investigation into a past obscured even to those who lived it. In your work, how do you balance between time as enemy/conflict and time as conduit/lens?
In some ways I’ve been trying to write the same story about memory for my whole life. Memory is life and it’s a symbol of life and its scaffolding; our handling of the past affects how we approach the present and consider the future. It creates unreliability in all of us. I would say that writers live in memories but really all of us do, even Yoshiro Nakamatsu, though he tries to erase memory in the moment of invention with his oxygen deprivation and his thinking elevator, which he calls a vertical moving room. Fortunately, there’s no balance required; the enemy is the conduit, the time is the lens.
In Mathias Énard’s novel, Zone, he layers The Iliad over contemporary Europe in an attempt to demonstrate the horror of the past century. What myth or fable best nuzzles up against the cheek of the world today?
That’s a lovely image, the nuzzling. I’ve been thinking about The Odyssey all week, along with kumquats, but the thing with any more-or-less perfectly rendered myth or fable or novel or short story is that it layers onto the individual experience, the modern experience, and that’s surely why we read the old stories and write new ones.
What key facts does the world need to know about kumquats?
Eat the rind, eat the seed. Eat them in a movie theater. Put them in a bowl and stare at them every day.