Peg Alford Pursell’s A Girl Goes into the Forest is a collection of 78 fierce, beautiful, deeply satisfying flash fictions and short stories. Her previous collection, Show Her a Flower, A Bird, A Shadow was featured in Poets & Writers magazine’s “Five over Fifty” annual feature in 2017 and was the Foreword INDIES 2017 Book of the Year for Literary Fiction. She’s also the founder and director of WTAW Press and of Why There Are Words, a national literary reading series and program of WTAW Press. As a WTAW Press author, I have been fortunate to experience the rigorous, exhilarating process of Peg’s editing and her insights about writing. But when I read these new stories in A Girl Goes into the Forest, I still want to ask “How do you do that?” So I came up with a set of questions to find out more about the processes of inventing these stories.
Sarah Stone: So many of these stories center around family configurations, especially, though not only, dyads: mother/daughter, daughter/mother, siblings, couples, spouses. There are so many beautiful passages of the characters observing each other, reflecting on each other. Here’s a moment from “Daylilies”: “When she visited her mother last, she stood in the shadows at the door of the den and watched her mother sleep, the dream gently waving through her body, fluttering her fingers near her face. In the close room, a tart odor pervaded like an opaque mist, as if she were standing in her own backyard next to the lime tree, enveloped in the morning fog./ Please put off dying until I no longer disappoint you, she thought. Her mother’s blue eyes opened, and her mother looked at her the way little girls do when you tell them the truth.” How do you complicate and layer the characters and relationships in these dyads?
Peg Alford Pursell: Thanks so much, Sarah. When it comes to characters and the very short story, flash, it’s difficult to have many characters. There’s not enough space, generally speaking, to develop characters in 500 words or less. It only takes two characters to produce sufficient dramatic tension or conflict. When it comes to the use of family configurations, Flannery O’Connor said that anyone who’s survived beyond the age of twelve has enough fictional material for the rest of her life. Likewise, it doesn’t take long before we understand that people, family members, have an exterior and an interior, as we do ourselves. With all the complications inherent in our human makeup, the miracle is that we manage to somehow get along in our family systems, which I attribute to biological imperatives. Where does love come from, really? What is its primal nature, it’s purpose? Our first experiences with love, to varying degrees, is maternal, even if only pre-birth, so there’s an endless fount of source material in that dyad of mother and child. I’m probably most interested in mother/daughter since it’s what I know best, and it’s not as easy for me to inhabit a male’s perspective, although that doesn’t prevent me from trying. When writing, I inhabit my characters, with their contradictory ideas of the world, desires, situations, “lives lived” off the page. Usually that part comes easily to me, though if a story gives me trouble—doesn’t quite work—I can often trace the issue to a need to more completely immerse myself in a character’s interiority and behaviors.
Do you start a story from an image, a phrase, a situation? What kinds of processes do you practice for elaborating a sentence or a moment into a story?
My stories often emerge from a phrase that arises from I’ve no idea where. I wake up with words running through my mind. Sometimes images. I write first thing in the morning, in that liminality. Situations develop on the page to embrace and further the impetus. The only true process I can claim at those times is that I try to keep the day’s demands from interfering or intruding mentally, that I try to stay in that state. But even that isn’t something I can so much will to happen as one that’s perhaps ingrained itself into my body clock through habit. Often, it’s very difficult to leave that state, so I have to set an alarm to stop.
How much of a story do you arrive at in the initial impulses or session(s)? What kinds of practices do you follow in revision?
The length of a story has a great deal to do with that, though I prefer to get all of the story down at once. That can result in more of a sketch, sometimes, particularly if the story is one that needs a certain amount of length, beyond a page or two. But I don’t want to break the momentum, the spell. I’ve occasionally had that rare gift of an experience in which a story seems to write itself and attempts at revision aren’t fruitful—though that doesn’t mean I don’t put every story through my editor’s eye, so to speak. In revision, I’m concerned for the sonic quality of my writing, for rhythm and for where a line falls. I don’t want language superseded to notions of plot with the emphasis on the traditional structure, Freytag’s Triangle. It’s not that I don’t understand the satisfying comfort of classic plotting, it’s that I’m not that interested in proffering comfort in that way. I’d rather the reader find ease through excavation in the complexity of the relationships, situations, and characters—which seems more reflective of life. In revision, I pare away to create space for the reader to engage.
The stories interrupt linearity in unexpected, lucid ways. “In the City,” for example, gives us a character asking an implicit question and then beginning to answer it, obliquely: “In that moment she’d wonder who she was, inscrutable to herself, a mystery for some other time, one she might not ever solve. (She was someone’s sister. Her sister, who’d always been kind, had left the city long ago.)” Can you talk about how you create your juxtapositions and sense of nonlinear progression?
I can only try! In the example you share, the parenthetical answer may be thought of as another voice, one willing to say what it knows, offering up potential clues but also to provide information, backstory, about the character. Here, the reader is being invited to engage, to conjure possibility. I want there to be a spaciousness, a sense of what will happen off the page, in the future—will the character return to the mystery of who she was to herself in that moment? Solve it? Everyone has had at least one experience in saying or doing something that surprised them. How to explain our many selves? In a story, a writer has the luxury of creating dramatic momentum in a variety of ways to support the larger thematic questions—shifts, turns, voices, expansion, contraction, playing with narrative time. I like to let things happen as they will in composing. That is, I try to stay out of the way. In revision, I look for patterns, and for those inventions or surprises that feel true to the story and see how I can further or deepen them.
Some of your fictions are both realistic and archetypal, others fabulist but tangible. This book has the weight and power of the dream world, even in the most realistic of the stories. Do you work explicitly with dream material and if so, in what ways? What about the fabulous or mythological?
I love knowing that you experience the book this way. These days, I don’t work explicitly with dream material, but as I mentioned previously I’m writing early in the morning with a mind full of words or images. There was a time in my life when, fascinated by dreams, and by archetypes and the collective unconscious, I made more conscious use of such source materials. The idea of bringing in lines from the fairytale “The Snow Queen” as epitaphs for each section of the book came to me in a mysterious impulse, but once it did, I couldn’t let go of it.
The imagery, descriptions, and objects carry a lot of power here. A sweater, the workings of old phones, the makings of dinner, or a field of daffodils can embody mortality, loss, danger, as in the beginning of “Unraveled”: “Her sweater lay across the bed. To look at the shape of it and see her in it, how the weave had taken on the form of her body, that tender stretch of the sleeves—the way she always pushed them up her forearms. The sweater was a sweet red, the hue of poppies, of a particular strata of the clouds at sunset. The sweater on the bed. As if she’d been here only this morning, last evening at the latest. He walked around the room carefully on the balls of his naked feet, silent, but creatures in the walls felt his tentativeness. His restraint.” How do you find and develop your images and your characters’ interactions with the objects and places in their lives?
Another great question! Where do these images come from? How do we know why any of us notice what we do, why certain objects are significant or evoke feeling? I’ve wondered about this, with fascination. I’ve always been visual, drawn to the visual arts—making and taking in—drawn to symbology and so on. In an early doomed marriage, I had a mother-in-law who said I noticed everything, speaking in a way that wasn’t meant to be a compliment, which wounded me and made me feel I was doing something transgressive. I’ve never quite forgotten that indictment, obviously, as her influence was such that I tried to train myself not to see, not to hold onto details, and so on. When it comes to stories, to writing, I agree with William Carlos Williams’ notion of “no ideas but in things” and also the objective correlative that T. S. Eliot championed. Objects can be articles of emotional transference and allow writers to subtly and economically communicate the universal.
A Girl Goes into the Forest touches so deeply not only on the characters’ lives, but on our own lives. Most of all, it’s full of moments and interactions that feel like the truth, so much so that some readers see these stories as autobiographical, though it’s not possible that one life could contain so many different configurations (and conflagrations), so many different stories. How do you arrive at a feeling of truth in your stories?
This means so much to me because I do hope that readers can locate what feels true in the book. I aim to write what feels emotionally true to me, and then find and or conjure the moments, situations, characters that can embody it. The more particular the details, the more universal for the reader, of course. In many ways, it goes back to the aforementioned idea about choosing those things that can serve as objects of emotional transference and allowing them to do a lot of the work. It’s about letting myself write what scares me: so, as author, making the quest on the page that the girl(s) make(s) in entering the forest. What will I find? If I hold myself to being as clear-eyed as I possibly can while undergoing these expeditions (all the while knowing that I, like anyone, have my filters) and to setting down my discoveries, I have to have faith that readers will sense the authenticity in the words that result.
In these stories (which feel so substantial, even the shortest of them), people keep testing each other and themselves, or life and death keep testing them. The title story’s opening, for example: “Tentative, curious, uncertain, alive, she followed him into the woods, moving in the direction where perhaps she imagined the rest of her life waited. So ready for something to happen. The old secret cottage had fallen to the ground. He acted as if that surprise were inconsequential, and spread a thin jacket over the dark forest floor. To lie down was harder than it looked to be; wasn’t everything?” The tests in this book don’t seem to have any clear answers, though sometimes the characters seem to be waiting for their results. Can you talk about the way you write about ordeals, trials, and journeys, whether real or metaphorical?
I suppose it’s about worldview, isn’t it? What are we doing on this planet, and most particularly why do we have consciousness of the awareness that we’ll cease to exist? I remember my first moment of existential dread—more like abject terror. I was very young and in trying to wrap my mind around no longer existing, I tried to imagine what it would be like to never be able to draw again, my favorite thing to do. This was after I’d been put to bed one night. Despite the strict household rule to stay in bed, the terror sent me to find my mother, and she was able to reassure me with the story about heaven—there I’d have all the crayons I wanted and I’d even be able to draw all the time. This is newly fresh in my mind because of the current book I’m working on, in which the very young character experiences that first seism. The child wonders why a god who can create anything at all would choose to make people with so many troubles. Just the mere trials of having to eat, for one. Why be so cruel—tiny children aware that they’ll no longer live and breathe? So there are trials, ordeals, journeys, and the characters, like people, try to make sense of them, though there’s no inherent meaning in any of them. These are all stories.
Sarah Stone’s new novel, Hungry Ghost Theater (WTAW Press) appeared on the Millions Most Anticipated list for October and LitHub’s 21 Books You Should Read This October and was a finalist for the Northern California Book Award in fiction. Her previous novel, The True Sources of the Nile, was a BookSense 76 selection, has been translated into German and Dutch, and was included in Geoff Wisner’s A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa. She’s the coauthor, with her spouse Ron Nyren, of Deepening Fiction: A Practical Guide for Intermediate and Advanced Writers. Her stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in Scoundrel Time, The Millions, Ploughshares, StoryQuarterly, The Believer, and The Writer’s Chronicle, among other places. She’s written for and taught on Korean television, reported on human rights in Burundi, and looked after orphan chimpanzees at the Jane Goodall Institute. She received an MFA in Fiction from the University of Michigan and teaches creative writing for Stanford Continuing Studies and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.