Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Writing Wild: An Interview with Beth Gilstrap

I've made no secret of the fact that Beth Gilstrap is one of my favorite short fiction writers. I fell in love with her 2015 collection, I am Barbarella, and didn't think the prose could get any better. And then I read No Man's Wild Laura. With her most recent release from Hyacinth Girl Press, Gilstrap proves yet again that she is a master of the short story form. The four stories of No Man's Wild Laura are haunting. They ring out with the unmistakable Carolina voice Gilstrap is known for, but they also dig deep. Down to the bone deep. Marrow shattering deep. The women of her stories are difficult, complicated, raw and, above all, rendered with a striking honesty. I'm thrilled to bring you another interview with Beth Gilstrap and certainly hope you will check out her work. Enjoy!

SP: One of the things that I loved about your latest collection is the slight dark turn your work has taken. The four stories collected in No Man’s Wild Laura all resonate with themes I’ve come to expect from you- loss, family, the search for identity, connections with the natural world- but they all seem to carry a bit of a darker tone than the stories of your previous collection, I am Barbarella. “Regarding Suebelle,” in particular, is downright gothic. Was this change in tone deliberate for this collection or does it reflect a new direction in your writing?

BG: The tonal shift has been intentional to some degree—I’ve always loved southern gothic fiction and most of what I read tends to be on the darker side—but the stories also reflect a great deal of personal grief. My grandmother became ill and passed away during the writing of these stories. This has been grief on a level I still cannot fathom a year later. I figured I might as well work with those heavy emotions since I was unable to put them aside. I’m willing to bet I won’t be writing any lighthearted work in the near future. I write the stories I have to in order to work through my many issues. I don’t know if it works or produces anything of value, but I know my mental state is always better when I use the work as a way to deconstruct my feelings. I break and am rebuilt in the process.

SP: My favorite story in the collection, and I’d have to say my new favorite story of yours period, is “Go Off In the World Violet.” Without giving too much away, it’s the ending, the final line, that packs a gut-wrenching punch. From a craft perspective, how important is a story’s ending to its overall narrative? Do you ever start with a final sentence or image in mind and use it to guide the creation of the story?

BG: The endings are crucial for me, as I’m sure they are for most writers. I have had final images in mind for some stories, but most of the time, I fail miserably at the ending moments in early drafts so I spend a good deal of time cultivating the final lines. My goal is to leave readers with an image and feeling that resonates long after they’ve finished the story. And if I’ve really done my job, the reader will want to revisit the whole narrative. The whole reason I put “Earth to Gracie” last in the collection is so the reader would be left with the image of those little girls and their Christmas tree.

SP: The protagonists for all of the stories in No Man’s Wild Laura are women and given the title of the collection, this seems fitting. You and I have talked before about the idea of needing more “wild women” in fiction. Why do you think there aren’t more characters like this in the literary world? Why do we need them? And why do we need women writers to be wild as well?

BG: I think the main reason there aren’t more “wild” women in fiction is because women writers and writers of color are not given the same publishing opportunities, so naturally the varied voices are not represented as they should be, but I hope, with books like “The Vegetarian” we are starting to see a shift. I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about this. Every year we are reminded by the Vida Count, numerous essays about likability, invisibility, and voice, etc. It’s exhausting to see the same battle for agency year after year, decade after decade. I don’t know if I know how to improve the situation, if we will ever move beyond interviewers asking women writers ridiculous questions about themselves or their characters, but I strive to write women who explore their world, women in poverty, women who make dreadful decisions, who have the audacity of ambition, who encompass the whole spectrum of goodness, wildness, and anger and yes, even women who are at midlife or beyond and have not had children. I think we’re still at a place when we need to work hard to challenge the ridiculous notion of being likable, sweet-natured, and nurturing as the ultimate goal of womanhood. I don’t know. I’ve never been one to latch onto traditional gender roles. The feminine or masculine ideal? Fuck that. Humanity with all it’s ugliness and unexpected tenderness is what interests me. The bottom line is I want to read characters who destroy things and the same characters capable of healing them.

SP: While there are certainly lyrical elements in your work, especially in your crafting of voice, No Man’s Wild Laura is clearly a collection of short fiction. How then, did you hook up with the poetry-publishing Hyacinth Girl Press?

BG: I am a fan of their poetry chapbooks. I love that they are a small, feminist press, which consistently puts out provocative work. I also loved the design of the books and the fact that they’re handmade. It seemed like a perfect fit for my little collection, and when I saw they were accepting prose manuscripts, they were one of three places I sent it. In the acceptance letter, they told me the prose was gorgeous and I felt, coming from poets, that was the highest of compliments. It’s pretty cool when someone else sees the effort I put into the music of the language.

SP: In addition to writing short fiction, you are also the fiction editor for LittleFiction. What does it take for a submission to really knock your socks off? Have you ever found a short story in your inbox that absolutely took your breath away?

BG: For a submission to knock my socks off, the language, voice, and character must be crisp and original. I look for music. I look for tension. I look for an emotional connection. I look for atmosphere. I want to be unable to stop reading. It’s extremely rare to find all of these things in one piece, but when you do, it’s a glorious feeling. It snaps you out of your angst or ennui and gets you excited about stories again. You forget all the difficulties of this writing life and remember why we are all still fighting the good fight and trying to make art. Of course I love all the stories we’ve published since I joined the team, but there was one in particular last November that still floors me. I think about “Dive” by Daniel Knowlton often. The attention to detail, right down to the lexicon of the sea and of science, the extensive research he conducted, the atmosphere he created, and the utter despair I felt at the end, these are not things you see in your average story.

SP: I’ve heard a few rumblings in the air that you might currently be working on a novel. If so, what’s the biggest difference between writing short and long forms? Is the process itself different? Does one or the other make you want to tear out more or less hair while you're writing?

BG: Well, since I’ve been working on the novel off and on for 4 ½ years, this venture has definitely been more difficult for me than short stories. I can usually puzzle out a short story much easier than this process has been for me. I’m not a planner. I have to get a story out and then try to make sense of it and find its best structure after the fact. When I start thinking too much, the thing (whatever the thing is) is lost for me. So, I’m back at it now after months away and am trying to trust my process, trying to put in the hours every day with the faith that it will all turn out okay eventually. It’s also a much different pace, a novel. You have to allow moments to linger. We’ll see what else I have to say on this subject if I ever finish the damn thing.

SP: Finally, because you have amazing taste, I’d love to know what you’re currently reading. Any books on the horizon you’re waiting for as well?

BG: I finished The Vegetarian by Han Kang yesterday and am now starting Home by Marilynne Robinson, which after reading Gilead a few months ago, I am ecstatic to get to. I’m going to take my time with it and try not to read Lila as soon as I finish. I’m letting them linger, too.

Did I also mention how completely badass Beth Gilstrap is? Yeah... So, check out her work and keep her on your radar. Cheers and happy reading!

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