Suspend Your Disbelief

Complex Truth: A Conversation with Ashley Wurzbacher

"There’s a script for marriage, there’s a script for adulthood, and I like writing about characters who go off script or are at least tempted to do so."

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Complex Truth: A Conversation with Ashley Wurzbacher

"I love work that examines what it’s like to be a woman struggling to act as an autonomous person inside a place or a culture that’s very invested in telling you how to act, how to do your gender": Ashley Wurzbacher talks with Lee Thomas about her debut collection, Happy Like This, the complexity of female friendships, resisting gender narratives, and more.

Contingency animates the ten stories in Ashley Wurzbacher’s debut collection, Happy Like This (Iowa). The women and girls at the heart of the collection scrutinize the world and consider how it might be otherwise, sometimes taking the leap to radical change, sometimes looking from afar at the road not taken. Even as friendships falter, lovers resurface, and bonds strengthen—or shatter—her characters always maintain a sense of possibility. In the title story of the collection, a character thinks, “to live here is to be ever reminded of the messes we make of our lives.” These stories celebrate the messiness and complexity of an honest life: one lived not apart from fear, but in spite of it.

Happy Like This won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award from the University of Iowa Press. The National Book Foundation recently awarded Wurzbacher a spot on their “5 Under 35” list of debut authors whose “work promises to leave a lasting impression on the literary landscape.” Wurzbacher grew up in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and a rural sensibility infuses many of the stories, along with the high-stakes intimacy of small towns. She teaches creative writing at the University of Montevallo in Alabama. This conversation occurred over email in early October 2019, just before the publication of Happy Like This.


Lee Thomas: Tell me something about your reading life. Which books or writers have most shaped you?

Ashley Wurzbacher: I’ve always loved Alice Munro for the way she pushes the limits of the short form. Often, her stories are so spacious that they feel almost like novels: years pass, lives change, relationships begin and end. Her stories are so structurally daring; they’re often non-linear, associative, sprawling. They also tend to focus on the inner lives of girls and women, especially those in rural settings, and to reflect a rigorous attention to physical detail in descriptions of things like furniture, clothing, and other domestic or “feminine” objects. And there’s always a sense of community in her work, of the way her characters fit into or fail to fit into their communities, with all their mores and norms and judgments. There’s a kind of community consciousness that gets internalized by her protagonists so that tension tends to arise between the way the community or the culture wants them to act and the way their heart is telling them to act.

I love work that examines what it’s like to be a woman struggling to act as an autonomous person inside a place or a culture that’s very invested in telling you how to act, how to do your gender, and Munro’s work showed me that it was okay to consider this in my writing, that these sorts of concerns could be “literary.”

Can you tell me a bit about your background? Did you come from a literary household?

Literate, yes; literary, no. My parents always encouraged me to read and write, and my mom would help me make up stories, and my dad would tell me bedtime stories he made up about deer and turkeys and other forest animals (he was a forester), but no one in my family was an academic or an artist in any professional sense. I always felt aware of my family members’ creative capacities, though.

Once, when I was in junior high, my dad sent me a letter from a hunting trip he’d taken. He wrote it by a campfire in the presence of other men who were probably all sitting around joking and farting, and I remember opening it up and reading it and being surprised to discover what an eloquent writer he was.

My mother’s family was creative, as well, and I often write with my grandmother in mind—creative, deeply sensitive, quick-witted, and stringently self-critical, she always struck me as someone who, under different circumstances, in a different generation, would have made a great writer. Instead, she expressed her creativity through the wreaths and aprons and ornaments she made, the Italian food she cooked, the flowers she arranged. In “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens,” Alice Walker writes of recognizing her mother’s capacity as an artist in the gardens she grew; I recognized my grandmother’s creativity in her domestic endeavors. I think the creativity of women and working people has been channeled in so many different directions over the generations, a great many of which have been non-verbal, and for me it’s always been gratifying and beautiful to see how creativity has been expressed in my family.

At the same time, I had no models of people who’d pursued creative careers, so I’ve often felt like an impostor in the literary world where it sometimes seems like everyone else knows what they’re doing, while I have no idea. I felt that way frequently during graduate writing workshops. I also feel it doing interviews like this one!

You mention in your acknowledgments that a teacher, Gregory Spatz, advised you to “spend everything” in your writing. What does that mean to you?

I think Greg was referring to ideas or “story material,” encouraging us not to hoard it or save it as if it were finite and wouldn’t regenerate, because there will always be more, and part of writing is having faith that there will always be more, and having faith in your own powers of perception and imagination.

Sometimes when I write something that I think is really good, I get this feeling like, “Well, THAT will never happen again, this was a one-time thing, I’ll never make anything like it again, the rest will all be trash, I have nothing left to say.” I feel that way about Happy Like This, too; even though I’m already writing another book, it still feels as if I’ll never possibly be able to publish another, like the first one was just a fluke and soon everyone will find out that I actually have very few thoughts or things of value to say because I’ve dumped them all into Happy Like This and there are no more. I think that feeling means I’ve spent everything. It’s scary. But after all these years of writing, I now know enough to know that there will always be more ideas, more emotions, more questions that I want to explore, and thanks to mentors like Greg, I now finally have the confidence that when those ideas and emotions and questions come to me I’ll find the resources to deal with them on the page.

I think this phrase can also refer to the level of emotional investment that goes into writing. When writing, I should feel like I’ve laid myself bare. I should feel a little bit afraid and vulnerable. I’m a pretty private and guarded person, so the prospect of putting my heart on display for a wide audience is frightening to me, but I think that to write well I need to lean into that fear. If I feel kind of defenseless when I finish or publish a story, that’s another way I know I’ve spent everything in making it. Whether anyone else buys it is another story.

How did this book come together? Were the stories something you had in mind going into your MFA, or did the work arise in the course of the program, or even after?

It took me ten years to write this book, but I didn’t always know I was writing this book. There’s a story in the collection I wrote as an undergraduate, one I wrote as an MFA student, several I wrote as a PhD student, and several I’ve written since. Before publishing Happy Like This, I had shopped the manuscript around under different titles to no success. In its earlier iterations, the manuscript was more of a “greatest hits” collection—a collection of stories I’d written that I liked but that didn’t quite hold together as a cohesive book with a clear sense of theme or purpose.

It took me a while to study my own work and my own mind to figure out what my obsessions were, what the themes and emotions were that I kept coming back to. Once I’d clarified what those were (ambivalence towards marriage and motherhood, female friendships, the joys and woes of women’s intimate relationships), I was able to write new stories with an intentionality that I didn’t have before, thinking consciously about how they’d harmonize with the other pieces in the collection.

On that note, let’s talk about the stories.

In “Happy Like That” Elaine considers that marriage, love itself, “is to make a commitment not so much to a person as to a story.” In what ways do stories shape our perceptions?

Gender is a story. Success is a story. We get so many of our ideas about what it means to succeed or be a good woman, wife, mother, etcetera, or to live a full life from stories—or narratives—we didn’t write ourselves and that, much of the time, we don’t realize we’re reading or internalizing. I’ve struggled so much with feelings of guilt, shame, and self-doubt that have all come to me through these narratives and through the comparisons I’ve made between my life and others’, especially other women’s. I’ve often wondered why I don’t or can’t seem to feel the “right” thing or want the “right” thing. Why don’t I want to be married? Why can’t I stay put, why don’t I have a house like other people my age, or kids like other people my age, or this or that? Why am I sitting here making up a story about a mermaid when I ought to be doing this or that more important thing? What’s wrong with me?

Gender is a story. Success is a story.

Of course, nothing’s wrong with me, necessarily. I just have to write my own story. I have to accept that it’s okay to go off script. There’s a script for marriage, there’s a script for adulthood, and I like writing about characters who go off script or are at least tempted to do so. This is part of the reason why I like writing about female friendships—because it seems to me that there’s less of a script for them. Part of the reason why my own adult friendships, especially those with women, have been so interesting and rewarding is that they’re one of the few parts of my life where I feel unencumbered by any sort of script or grand narrative telling me how I should conduct them or what the rules are. They’re not like marriages (heterosexual marriages, anyway), which are so scripted and formalized, and yet just like marriages they can be potentially lifelong, mutually supportive, and profoundly meaningful. They can also end in heartbreaking ways. We’re constantly writing and rewriting our own scripts for how to relate to one another, and I think there’s a kind of happiness in that freedom to revise and improvise without worrying about what’s “supposed” to happen or how things are “supposed” to go according to a pre-packaged master narrative. I think that’s what Elaine loves about her friendship with Lillian in “Happy Like That.” It’s singular, and inside it she feels like she can be open and honest about things she can’t be open and honest about elsewhere without feeling ashamed.

In “Make Yourself at Home” Caroline engages in a sustained deception of a stranger that mirrors the art of fiction writing in interesting ways. Of Caroline, you write, “She had a knack for this, it seemed, composing euphemisms and half-truths. And lies, too, plain old lies.” Do you feel that stories and lies share any of the same DNA? What do you think fiction—in one sense an artful, deliberate lie—might achieve that factual reporting cannot?

Certain kinds of stories can be lies. The sorts of master narratives I described earlier can be lies. But literary stories, works of art, are more like the antidotes to lies. Adrienne Rich writes that lies are attempts to make things simpler than they are or ought to be, while truth is increasing complexity. Good literature engages that complexity.

I think Caroline makes up a life in order to find a way to safely talk about her own. She’s lying in that she’s pretending to be someone she’s not, but in some paradoxical way she’s doing it in order to get closer to herself. I don’t think she does any harm by assuming Meredith’s name in her correspondence with the other Meredith, and her lies, if we’re calling them that, certainly don’t make anything simpler, even if she might wish they would; instead they open up new questions for her to work through as she tries to figure herself out.

I don’t pretend to be my characters the way Caroline does, but I suppose there’s still some similarity between what she does and what I do as a writer. I don’t really like talking about myself, and I don’t have much interest in writing nonfiction or memoir. I don’t like the idea of setting down an account of myself that’s final, that makes itself permanent through publication. I’m too anxious and reserved and afraid of misrepresenting or aggrandizing myself in some way. Writing fiction lets me explore things I’ve thought about or observed, and in some cases things that have happened to me, from behind a sort of safe screen. Some of what I write is pure fabrication; some is very close to me and my experience. But it’s none of the reader’s business which is which. So for me fiction is much more like a shy way of being honest than it is like a “lie.”

Children are often vicious or cruel in the stories, which I found refreshingly honest. In “What It’s Like to Be Us” a group of friends targets one of their peers in a way that reminded me of William Golding, or even something like Yukio Mishima’s novel The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. Do you find a child’s perspective on the world fundamentally different from an adult’s? If so, in what ways?

One of my teachers, Antonya Nelson, once remarked that children are just “tiny drunk adults.” I think that pretty much sums it up. I don’t know that I’d say that children’s perspectives on the world are fundamentally different from adults’, just that they’re unfiltered and blunt in a way that is really fruitful for fiction.

Photo by Alyssa Green

Another reason I like writing about children and teenagers is that they can get away with being confused and frightened and perplexed by the world. Readers seem to expect this of children, teens, and young adults up to, say, their early twenties, but to be less compassionate towards adults who are confused or frightened or perplexed by the world. I’ve often heard my students or peers in workshop express impatience with adult protagonists who don’t “have their shit together” or who are “needy” in some way. And that’s always a little disappointing to me because I, for one, feel confused and frightened and perplexed by the world all the time. In that younger protagonists seem to elicit more compassion from adult readers, they seem like a suitable vehicle for exploring those feelings. In “What It’s Like to Be Us,” Mary Louise thinks of the piece of her thigh she sliced off when she cut herself shaving her legs, an adult practice which is new to her, and she feels sad about how that little piece of herself is gone forever. An adult might find this a silly thing to be sad about, but Mary Louise gets away with it.

If we allowed ourselves to contemplate more often the way that our lives are constantly in the process of ending, how everything is—in the words of the adult narrator of “Happy Like This”—“fast vanishing, like something spoken,” we’d be sad, too, just as Mary Louise is in that moment as she tries to process the seconds ticking by while she walks home from school and feels overwhelmed by their loss, by the loss of that piece of her own flesh, by all the parts of her childhood that she’s just beginning to realize cannot be regained. I guess part of adulthood is being too distracted to stop and think about these things that, to a younger person, are still novel and destabilizing.

Dreams play a role in several of the stories. Do you remember your dreams?

Often, yes, and the older I get the more boring they become. Most of my dreams are anxious or stressful: it’s time for the dance recital and I’ve lost my shoes or I’m wearing the wrong costume or I can’t remember the routine; it’s the first day of the semester and I haven’t finished my syllabus. I love sleeping; bedtime is my favorite time of day, and I always go to it hoping it will bring vivid dreams that are strange in a good way. It’s wonderful when it happens and disappointing when it doesn’t. I always feel so let down when I end up with some mundane, anxious dream about misplaced ballet slippers or dysfunctional classroom technology.

Relatedly, do you feel the unconscious plays a role in your writing process?

My first impulse is to say no, which makes me think the answer might really be yes? Often, I’ve written things that I thought were pure fabrications that had nothing to do with me but that years later I came to see were absolutely about me, or about something I’d been feeling at the time but didn’t realize I was feeling, or didn’t want to acknowledge feeling. I was revisiting certain emotions and types of relationships in my writing, but I wasn’t listening to what my writing was trying to tell me about myself, I didn’t want to see the truth inside the fiction. I didn’t want it to be personal.

Do you have another project in mind now that Happy Like This is out in the world?

I’m working on a novel about sisters. The main characters are two sisters a decade apart in age who move in together in the wake of their mother’s death and both fall in love with the same man. Each of them makes choices (professional, personal, reproductive) that the other struggles to understand. One of the sisters is a psychologist, so I’m drawing on psychological research on the mechanics of choice and decision-making in the novel. We all think we want unlimited choice, and one of the central goals of feminism (a goal that I fully support) is to ensure the availability of free choice to people of all genders. Yet research shows that the availability of seemingly unlimited choices is actually, more often than not, petrifying and overwhelming and kind of terrifying for people.

Every choice entails a loss, and sometimes in making the choices that are best for us, we end up hurting other people. I’m writing to think through what happens to people when they believe they have many options (of careers, of potential partners, etc.) and, by contrast, when they believe they have no options at all.

Writing a novel is terrifying. It’s so big and unwieldy. I struggle with plotting. And I realize, just now, that I think I’ve used words like “terrifying” and “frightening” a lot throughout this interview, so maybe the main thing I’ve revealed about myself here is that I’m just terrified all the time. It’s true that fear has been central to my writing life and to my life in general—being afraid to do things but doing them anyway, being afraid to write things but writing them anyway, being afraid of failure but doing something—writing—in which failure is inevitable and rejection is unavoidable.

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