I was not disappointed.
In truth, I was blown away.
Beth Gilstrap writes stories that sing. Her characters leap off the page and the reader cannot help but become taken by them. Their troubles become the readers' troubles; their joys become the readers' joys. Gilstrap creates characters who are messy and places them in situations that are complicated and destructive. Yet we cannot help but fall in love with them, as we cannot help but fall in love with Gilstrap's honest style and dedication to the authenticity of the world she writes about. There is something glittering on the pavement here, and whispering through the trees.
And that something is raw, raging talent.
Steph Post: I am Barbarella is a short story collection, but ten of the stories feature the same characters or mention of the same characters, settings and events. Loretta, Janine, Hardy... As I went through the stories I saw the threads weaving together a multi-perspective microcosm of lives. Did you write all of these stories in a single span of time? Or are they characters that have haunted you throughout your writing career, demanding to show back up time and time again?
Beth Gilstrap: I did write all of them in the same span of time. Between fall of 2010 and winter 2014. I intended to write connected stories, but the cast became larger than I anticipated. I’m interested in how people create ripples in each others’ lives even though we may not realize it. I tried to accomplish the same effect with the threads throughout the collection. There are six more stories that didn’t make the cut into the final manuscript. This crew still haunts me, but I intend to keep them lodged firmly in my brain. It’s time to let some other characters talk for a while.
SP: In reading about these characters, I was reminded in some ways of Faulkner's Snopes family and how he couldn't seem to let them go. Do you see a novel stirring somewhere in the depths of I am Barbarella? (hint: I do!)
BG: Ah, yes, the Snopses. Faulkner is certainly an influence. I had a Faulkner seminar during my first round of graduate school. We read nine novels and his collected short stories. When I first read his novels, I thought I was drunk and sometimes wished I were. I’ve been fascinated by the scope and intensity of his storytelling since. There was a point near the end of the first draft of the "thing" as I called it then, when I wasn’t sure if it would be a novel or if I’d continue with the mosaic effect of linked stories. I think these lines are blurry. At this time, I don’t intend to develop a novel with any of these characters. I have put in three years of work on a novel about folk artists, but I’m on the verge of putting it aside to work on something else.
SP: While not all of the stories feature Loretta and her family and friends, they all occur in the same world- one that I felt an eerie, striking kinship with. Tell me more about this world and its inhabitants.
BG: This world is essentially Charlotte and the surrounding rural counties. Upstate South Carolina and coastal North Carolina come into it, too. This world is my world –a strange contrast between wealth and newness and poverty and a group of folks who hail from farming and textile mills. My people were never wealthy. My mother’s parents each had 7 siblings. Most of them farmed and then headed to work in the mills. Many did not attend more than a few years of school. The mills, the farms, and most of my relatives are now gone. My generation grew up children of divorce, children of first-generation (or first-generation themselves) college students, children of what people call the New South, whatever the hell that is. I’ve never known. My grandpa couldn’t read and my mother has a PhD in education. I am a product of these extremes and I think Charlotte is in some ways, too. I guess part of me writing this world is trying to make sense of all that.
SP: As I mentioned, I felt an immediate connection to the people and places of your work. In many ways, these are my people and it was no stretch for me to understand and relate to their motives and desires, their bad decisions and glittering, underdog hopes and dreams. Do you write for a particular audience who you believe will relate to you stories? Or do you think everyone can find something in these pages?
BG: I hope everyone can find something to identify with in these flawed characters. We’re all fucked up in our way, right?
SP: My experience with reading I am Barbarella was strangely akin to my reading of Taylor Brown's collection In the Season of Blood and Gold in the fact of my constantly deciding that each new story was my favorite. I kept going back, however, to one of the earlier stories in the book- "Some Girl." This one completely took my breath away in so many aching, unexpected ways. Do you have a favorite?
BG: “Some Girl” is certainly up there, but I think “Spittle” is my favorite because we get to see Loretta discovering more of herself and trying to quiet her demons later in life.
SP: I was lucky enough to read with you last month and from the very first paragraph of the title story of I am Barbarella, I could hear your voice in my head as I read your words. I think, though, that even if I hadn't had the pleasure of hearing you read your work, your voice would have rang out loud and clear. It's not often that an author's actual voice coincides so perfectly with the voice of the character and of the narrative. How did you achieve this?
BG: That might be the best compliment I’ve ever had on my work and my reading. Thank you. I’m not sure exactly other than to say, for me writing is similar to method acting. Maybe everyone feels this way, but when I work (whether it’s reading to an audience or during composition) I feel things so deeply, I wind up in a state. All my pain and joy is right underneath the surface. I try to channel it into the characters. People have said my voice is lyrical, too. Maybe that’s a product of growing up with a musician? Anyway, I always read my work aloud when I’m drafting. There’s a rhythm in my head and I revise until what’s on the page matches it. I don’t know. Did that answer the question?
SP: Absolutely! And as I'm always searching for the next great read, and to give a shout out to our fellow authors- who or what have you read in the past six months that has really knocked your socks off?
BG: Caitlyn Moran’s How to Build a Girl ripped my heart out in the best way. Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven floored me. There’s also a contributor to Atticus Review in the Gothic Issue named Kristen Valentine (“The Girl from Thorn Point Road”) whose work has blown me away. I expect to see more from her, soon.
SP: And finally, considering that after I am Barbarella I will now read any word you write, what's next for you?
BG: I recently finished a chapbook, which I’m calling “No Man’s Wild Laura.” We’ll see what happens. I am determined to complete a novel, too. Maybe it’ll be about a female outlaw.
See why I'm crazy about this author? Now that I'm sure you are too, pick up a copy of I am Barbarella from Twelve Winters Press. And be on the look out- I'm sure we'll be seeing much more of Beth Gilstrap as she takes the fiction world by storm....
Thanks so much, Beth!