“In the mood to destroy monuments.” A conversation with Amelia Gray
Amelia Gray’s writing is by turns provocative and tender, brutal and sly, hilarious and unsettling. In the 37 stories that comprise her latest collection, Gutshot (forthcoming April 14, FSG Originals), birds are dismembered and landmarks destroyed, couples find new and disturbing ways to keep things fresh, body parts abound, and nothing is quite what it seems. Gray took the time to chat with us about her writing and revision process, the appeal of clickbait news, tackling a novel, and steering clear of the dreaded narrative “corner.”
ANNE RASMUSSEN: Reading Gutshot I came to expect to have the rug pulled out from me. Stories that felt comfortingly familiar in their opening lines were the ones to watch out for. In “Monument,” the citizens gather together for what seems like a seasonal tradition of maintaining the graveyard. You’ve got all these pleasant images of villagers scrubbing away at the gravestones, trimming the shrubs, little kids pitching in to help, until a gravestone is accidentally chipped. Everyone stops. And then proceeds to destroy the entire graveyard in a gleeful frenzy, until everything is smashed. There’s a sense in this collection that social order is more fragile than we think—chaos lurks beneath ordinary surfaces. Many of the stories are quite brief, so you’re pulling off this reveal after just a few pages. When you sit down to write a story, do you typically have a specific ending in mind?
AMELIA GRAY: In general I might think of a certain direction or image or idea rather than an ending. When I sat down to write the graveyard story, I was in the mood to destroy monuments, and in the mood for something a little dark and mysterious, and reading “Watching Television” by Marie Howe which includes the line “Anything I’ve ever tried to keep by force I’ve lost.” I think of writing as a chance to respond to the world, which includes day-to-day life and items read and considered. Every story ends up looking like a whole from the front but feeling very much like a collage to me, thinking about it in hindsight.
AR: How much control do you try to exert over the outcome in your initial drafts?
AG: I’m always writing towards something, but what exactly I’m writing towards will affect the level of control. For example if I want to consider the idea that pride will destroy you in a way that is very personal to you, I will be dogged in pursuing that point but not as interested in precisely how the plot moves to get to that point. But if I want to consider the idea that a love relationship ends in atrophy or mutually assured destruction, the plot will necessarily adhere to that line of thinking, but the ideas inside the story are free to go where they like. Letting go of control is a purposeful act. Everything about writing involves control in some way.
AR: Some of the stories have the feel of a game about them—as though you gave yourself certain rules to balance randomness and progression. In “Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover,” every line opens with a banal stage of courtship (“When he buys you a drink…”, “When he asks you if you’re going to write about him…”, “When he asks you to marry him…”) and closes with a prescribed act of cannibalism, sometimes comic, sometimes shocking, often both (“…plunge a penknife into his nose and carve out a piece”, “…push a corkscrew into his shin and chew on what curls out”, and (my personal fave) “…panfry his foreskin.”) If we only read the beginnings or ends of each line, we’d be left with a bland sort of dating infomercial (or strange cannibal porn) respectively. But the combined effect is hilarious and sort of magical. I love how the relationship/story continues to progress through all this violence, that “…smother him with a pillow and eat his little finger” ISN’T a deal breaker, and instead leads to the a new stage in the courtship: “When he moves his books into your apartment…” With a piece like this where no detail feels too grotesque or off-limits, how do you decide what makes the final cut?
AG: I wanted to try and include a different body part in each line and a different method of destruction, and then I wanted the line to work and sound right on its own and in conjunction with the other lines. As a result the feeling for me was of remembering and considering all the body parts, both the ones I have and the ones I’ve known. It is a very sweet story to me, and I’m a little surprised when people read it as grotesque or discomforting. I mean, I totally get it, but since I don’t have that response thinking about it, I’m surprised.
AR: It doesn’t feel like you’re aiming for a “gross out” moment so much as peeling back the surface and forcing the reader to really “look” at things. Whether it’s the filthy, shit-caked undersides of swans or the obligation of a thank you note or that painfully throbbing pimple that won’t stop talking to us in our dead mother’s voice, your work has a way of stripping away the placating stories we tell ourselves and getting right down to our insecurities. You also work as an advertising writer. I’m curious to know how professional and creative writing dovetail in your life. Does the advertising world provide interesting fodder?
AG: It’s funny, you’re the first person to really ask about my day job, which takes up a ton of my day and is way more substantive at least in terms of its hourly commitment than my writing routine. I think there’s a kind of myth of the author as this mountaintop-sage kind of person when in reality most everyone is teaching or working some other kind of regular job. It’s a weird myth and does more harm than good. So thanks for asking. I’ve worked in marketing and advertising, I’m in an agency right now and am going freelance again soon. I’ve come to protect my writing time more and fight for it, and I’ve learned a tenacity around the act of creation that has helped me stay with stories longer. If I can spend three months writing scripts selling laundry detergent, I can sit with anything.
AR: Even the more disturbing relationships in Gutshot have their moments of disarming tenderness. It’s often difficult to tell exactly who is in control and who benefits; they are intimate and transactional and grotesque. It would be hard to summarize what happens in “House Heart” or “Western Passage” or “The Moment of Conception” without it sounding like some kind of lurid clickbait news item, but the shock I feel as a reader is more of recognition: how easy it is to identify with an apparent predator or sympathize with a couple’s extreme action. What is your starting point for developing these characters and relationships?
AG: You link those three together in an interesting way; I would link them like that too. I love to read clickbait news and the comments underneath for their mob mentality. It’s so interesting to see how an article will spin a piece of information in a way that begs its own comments. It’s certainly not a new idea for a writer to sympathize with a predator or these kinds of extremes. I think the most successful work along those lines comes when the writer has satisfied the question of how the predator thinks and how the victim thinks and can move on to other ideas. “Moment of Conception” for example ended up being about a larger thing, which is that the love relationship is always necessarily its own strange little system, and maybe the most successful ones are the most removed from the reality in which the rest of us live.
AR: That sense of a relationship being a sort of self-contained universe is explored in depth in your novel, THREATS. I found David and Franny’s life together (as recalled by David) utterly poignant in its strangeness; that they found each other at all is made more heartbreaking by Franny’s death. Although “whodunnit” (or perhaps “whose reality is real”) questions hover over the book, the devastation of this loss for David is never in question (regardless of whether or not he played a role in it). In short stories you present couples and their internally-generated logic in a more compressed format. What was it like to have the room to really examine David and Franny’s “strange little system” in detail over the course of a novel?
AG: It was exhausting! Or exhaustive, anyway. I find that in a very short story I usually only have room to work within the situation. Then when a story expands I think about what a person does for a living or what they used to do, and that branches off into how they were with their coworkers, what they felt about their job, how the work changed them or how they changed the work, and how all of that affected their relationships with people they love. Then with more space I thought of family, generations back, and friends old and new, and then the physical space around them and how, given all that information amassed, how they might interact with the world. All that before anything really happens.
AR: What did you learn from the process of writing THREATS that you plan to carry forward into your next novel?
AG: Be aware of how every choice you make for your character or plot paints yourself into a corner. Try to play with that and escape the corner. Don’t be so precious about the corner. When in doubt, talk about farts.
AR: (Duly noted.) Can you talk a little bit about the process of working with an editor, both on individual stories and in drawing the collection together as a whole? In your acknowledgements you thank the editors who published many of these pieces in various journals, “particularly those who gave substantive notes…” What kind of editorial feedback do you find most useful?
AG: I’m grateful whenever an editor likes a story enough to give it their time and attention, and one pleasure of writing short stories is getting a chance to work with many different thoughtful editors who are often artists in their own right. Going back and forth with Ben Marcus on “Moment of Conception” for The American Reader was so great in the ways he challenged the characters to have certain individual motivation. He saw this half-thread in the original, which was that the woman in the story was a bit of a liar, and teased it out to great effect. And then working with Jesse Pearson for Apology Magazine, he had such a strong and clear sense of tone in “In the Moment” and saw exactly a few lines at the end which didn’t match everything else. I never would have spotted it myself, having looked at that story for months and months.
AR: You’ve worked with Emily Bell at FSG for both Gutshot and THREATS. How does the process differ when working on a longer narrative as opposed to a collection?
AG: Emily is brilliant and what really works between us is how firmly we’re on the same page. We can be apart for a year at a time and meet up and hit the precise same stride. With THREATS she knew where to push and challenge and with Gutshot she knew exactly when to come in and tinker and when to stand back. Gutshot was a little different because it did have that strong editorial guidance from many sources, but it was still up to her to see it as a whole as well as individual stories.
AR: There’s an embrace of structures and systems in your work—whether you’re describing the arterial-like ductwork of a home or Ulysses Grant’s ritual of butchering a chicken for his supper. There’s blood, to be sure—but there’s also a joy of assembling and dismantling. I was struck by the gorgeous cover design for Gutshot which captures the surreal, often visceral quality of your stories. How directly did you get to be involved in determining the story sequence, design, and overall look of the collection?
AG: The story sequence was totally up to me and pretty daunting, with almost forty stories. I printed everything out and spread it around my bedroom and just started grouping things, swapping stories which felt conclusive with stories that felt generative, until I formed five loose categories which made sense as stand-alone sections. The book didn’t have sections until the last month of edits, and I realized that if I felt overwhelmed in looking at it, surely any reader would have the same feeling. The cover is from a Fernando Vicente illustration and was the first thing they showed me in concepting the cover. Everyone knew it was perfect straight away. I think Strick & Williams did a fantastic job with the cover. Design fans should check out an interview with them [linked below].
AR: If you could have readers experience Gutshot in tandem with the work of another writer whose work would you want to be read alongside your own, and why?
AG: I’d pick Lindsay Hunter. We are soul siblings. I think of her for Gutshot in particular because of how I was reading so much of her work while I was writing, Daddy’s and Don’t Kiss Me mostly but I was also doing a lot of public readings with her, so some of my work responds to her vital and violent and sharp work.
Interview with Strick & Williams about the cover design process for Gutshot and THREATS.
Find a copy of Gutshot on IndieBound
Amelia Gray grew up in Tucson, Arizona. Her first collection of stories, AM/PM, was published in 2009. Her second collection, Museum of the Weird, was awarded the Ronald Sukenick/American Book Review Innovative Fiction Prize. She is the author of the novel Threats. She lives in Los Angeles. (Author photo by Matthew Chamberlain).