“They don’t ask me where I live. Everybody already knows.” The woman who says this, like all of Ashleigh Bryant Phillips’s characters, knows who she is because she knows she’s known by everyone around her. Phillips’s debut Sleepovers (Hub City Press) is told with the excitement and candor you associate with the word, exploring how community mends the banally mauled among us. Checkout girls, farmers, single mothers, the extraordinarily overlooked, dismissed by indifferent economic and literary systems, finally take center stage in this powerful ensemble piece.
The wrangling intimacy of Phillips’s characters and her faith in the redemptive communion possible between these lost people (misunderstanding each other together) places this writer squarely in the tradition of the Southern Gothic. These associative stories of friendship, humiliation, alienation, desire, death, and unintended pregnancies – life with all its insults and compromises remaining a real cause for celebration – make this small Southern Baptist town feel like the reader’s own inner world.
There’s a wonderful choral quality to things here; Sleepovers feels larger and wilder than a set of “interlinked short stories.” Why was it important to you to write these stories so that they seem to kaleidoscopically overlap rather than interlink? (It feels very purposeful that characters share certain circumstances but that they aren’t the same characters – in other words, important that the stories don’t just follow one family.)
Kaleidoscopically! How beautiful! I never had one as a child myself but there was one in the nursery at church that had all these wonderful colored beads and looking through it was like Fantasia. But on to the question – when I was writing these stories I was not thinking about the collection as a whole until I was in MFA school and wanted to take this year long novel course with the rest of my fiction cohort. So I pitched the idea to my mentor and novelist, Clyde Edgerton, who led the class, that even though I was a short story writer, my stories all came from the same spiritual memory bank of back home and he let me in the class. During the course I did start to naturally reoccur a few of the characters, working to build a “more cohesive” thesis that could possibly be marketed as a linked collection. But I did get push back against a “kaleidoscopic” collection of stories. Folks wanted me to either write a novel or link the stories even more. It was very difficult for me to conceive of either of those suggestions because my characters, even though they have similar circumstances, first started speaking to me as different people in my head, each with their own individual histories containing reflections of my own experience. And I felt it would be a disservice to my characters to amalgamate some of them together. I don’t believe any person, real or fictional, is better than the other. Furthermore, because each of my characters carry some of my own experience or those of my loved ones, writing with them is often a painful emotional exercise. But revisiting these memories through the fictional lens of my characters allows me enough distance to get in there and explore. And I’m just hoping that when the story comes out on the other end, it’s sharing some discovery. Otherwise, I don’t see the purpose of the story in the first place. So the choral-like circumstantial overlap in Sleepovers speaks to what I was trying to figure out emotionally while I was writing these stories. I never chose to create the collection this way, that’s just how it turned out. And I’m thankful that you found it “wonderful.”
Figures who should be trustworthy – older men, mothers, teachers – end up abusing that trust either by taking advantage of these characters or callously abandoning them. Despite these betrayals, trust remains an incredibly important part of life in this tightknit community and your characters keep trusting. Is this resilient choice to trust naive or is it counterintuitively a product of difficult experience?
I think belief and trust are one in the same. I was watching a documentary with this elderly Holocaust survivor recently. And she was sitting on a couch with both her great grandchildren on either side of her. And the filmmaker asked her if she believed in God and she said something to the effect of “When you’re drowning, you’ll reach for the tiniest straw.” This has been true to my experience. In dire situations, if there is no belief or trust that things will get better then there’s no point to keep going. And women especially, in the rural world I grew up in, don’t really have the choice to give up because they’re the caretakers of the community and home. So whenever you have loved ones depending on you, you cling to whatever you can to keep going whether it’s God or an actual person who has previously abandoned you. Sometimes there is no one else to turn to and it’s that trust and belief that keeps you alive.
Confronting violence, poverty, and death, what your characters seem to hate most is people feeling sorry for them. There’s an anti-sentimentality, a principled refusal of pity throughout the collection, directed at others who would put your characters on their “prayer lists” as well as the reader (“Daddy is sick with a disease I don’t wanna mention because I don’t want you to try to relate to me or say your grandma had it”). What’s so nefarious about pity? Are there any ways in which you feel other writers have treated characters like yours with pity in the past?
My great Aunt Dorice, who pretty much raised me, grew up under tremendously difficult circumstances with twelve siblings in the 1950s–1960s all throughout the rural south. Her family struggled with poverty and made it out with physical and emotional scars. And there’s no doubt the stories she told me from her childhood influenced me. She said, “I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, I just wanted them to listen to me.” And this is exactly how I felt in college and during my MFA years when I shared with others that my Daddy was dying of Alzheimer’s. When folks told me they were “sorry,” it felt like a dismissal as if they were categorizing a life circumstance I had no control over as “unwanted” or “bad.” Well, of course certain life circumstances are “unwanted” or “bad,” that’s a given! So, for me, saying “sorry” is like saying, “Hey, I see that you’re going through something really shitty and yeah it’s really shitty.” And sometimes you don’t want to be reminded of that. You’d rather be offered some relief or love or understanding. You’d rather hear “I’m here if you want to talk about it.” And yes, I feel that many writers have written characters akin to mine just to serve as a point of pity in their piece. I’m not going to call out any names but I saw it in my MFA workshops as well. After you read fiction that offers multifaceted views of unfortunate circumstances like “Samaritans” by Larry Brown or “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker, you can call out the dismissive bullshit real quick!
Entire lives can be structured by a single moment of losing control – from wetting the bed to having sex at the wrong time with the wrong person, embarrassing indiscretions pervade in this collection. What fascinates you about these moments when people’s vulnerabilities are exposed and judged?
Gosh, here’s another thing I was not aware of but I reckon I am interested in vulnerable moments. You can tell everything you need to know about a person depending on how they react in vulnerable situations, for those directly involved and for those on the sidelines assessing. What folks say in those situations says everything about them.
One of your characters says “It ain’t my life I’m living, it’s theirs.” Two of the strongest forces in these stories are religion and family, both structures that frame life as a gift and as a continuation of a story larger than yourself. I feel like there’s a comfort that comes with that but also a sense of responsibility. At times the characters feel anxious about the weight of their lives belonging to others (their dependent parents, their unborn children). Do you as a writer feel like your stories belong to the people who inspired them? Are they “theirs” in some sense? Does a sense of responsibility balance or inform your sense of freedom as a fiction writer?
I’m not sitting back at some desk and plotting out on a wall what makes my characters. I know them because they’ve loved me or hurt me or challenged me. Or maybe I’ve been them or known them my whole life. Or in the case of “Charlie Elliott” which is the imagined life of my great uncle who died before I was born, maybe I heard about them so much growing up they became alive in my head. I simply couldn’t write without others living their lives. So really I’m just a deliverer of their message and this drives every story. And I’ll work with editors all day long on the fictionalized bits of my stories, but once they start making suggestions on what happened in the lives of real people, I refuse to budge. And I’ve never felt that this hinders my freedom as a fiction writer. Because if I’m feeling bored I can always challenge myself to write from the perspective of the table where the real life actual supper happened. I’d say this responsibility to the truth of others tells me where to go.
Some of the most powerful moments here depict lying as an act of love (“Mrs. Creech lied to her husband because he was the best man she ever knew”). It becomes an act of charity, even mercy. Is fiction – which is technically lying – to you a similar act of charity or love or appreciation? Or is it the opposite, storytelling so often shining a light on those things we’d like most to hide from those we love?
Our world does not want to be faced with the truth because it’s uncomfortable and highly complicated. And no one wants to sit with uncomfortable thoughts and think and figure out highly complicated things. It takes time and emotional energy. So because it hurts to see our elderly loved ones losing abilities, we put them in nursing homes and never hardly see them. And because it’s so draining to talk to the opposing political party, we stay in our “safe spaces” and just hear the same things over and over. And because we’re scared of being alone we put up mental walls that allow us to only see how wonderful our shitty, abusive partners are. We lie to protect ourselves or others from the truth. Everyone does it and it’s an act of survival or as you mentioned charity or love. But I believe that fiction is one of those sacred places in our modern world where we can see the truth with all its uncomfortable complications and that’s the point of it. Excellent fiction is not another escape or distraction from the truth but it shines light on it and it allows the reader to wrangle it. This is fiction’s invaluable importance.
In “The Bear,” the sister follows her brother to see a dead bear. Throughout the story he’s been singing a hymn and although nobody sings along out loud she joins him in her mind, singing along internally. Although they’re not literally communicating, language still serves as a point of communion between them. This tension between what’s literally expressed through words and how language can be an almost religious site of connection intrigued me and I wondered how important that dynamic was for you?
I grew up in the same simple country church my grandparents went to. It was across a swamp creek bridge and way outside of town. It’s congregation was very small and my family sat on the same pew. My aunt, uncle, granddaddy, sister, daddy, and cousins. Mama was in the choir and my grandmama was the pianist, she passed away before I was born but I heard so much about her, growing up I imagined her up there playing piano even when she wasn’t. And every Sunday we all sang the same hymns out of the same hymn books my family before me used. And when I mean sing, all my family on our pew sang. There was no such thing as just standing up to hold the hymn book. And even if somebody didn’t have the prettiest voice it was okay because the rest of us coming in together made it pretty. But I remember when I was a child we updated the hymn books to newer versions. They included the same songs but they had brand new hardcovers, and their bindings weren’t showing from wear. But I didn’t like to use them so I kept one of the old hymn books on our family pew for us. When I left home for college I found myself bustling between my dorm room and history classes singing those hymns from home in my head. They’re still in my head now and they bring me great comfort. I wish I could start singing them anywhere now and have folks around me join in from memory, that would be magic. There’s nothing better in this world than folks singing together some ancient song they know by heart.
Many of your characters are arrested in a state of perpetual adolescence and even childhood – watching how they regress to become versions of their earliest selves gave a new meaning to the idea that the past isn’t even past. What did you want to explore by turning an eye to mental or psychological limitation (I’m thinking especially of the father in the last story suffering from dementia)? And does this circumscription connect at all to the characters’ sense of being circumscribed geographically?
I’m not gonna lie, I had to look up what circumscription meant. With all that said, when I first started writing short stories young narrators came to me the most naturally. Children aren’t going to try to impress you with analogies and similes and extra unneeded literary tricks in order to tell you a story that makes them look “smart” or “talented”. They’re going to cut right to the chase and tell you what happened and how they feel about it. In this way children are also like “outsider” or “art brute” artists, which is my favorite kind of visual expression. Where children have not been trained in the school of adulthood and shame and self awareness just yet, “outsider” painters create from passionate need rather than for an audience. Both do what their hearts urge them to do it’s simple and pure and unfettered by expectation. And I find it the farthest from circumscription because there are no rules when you’re unaware of tradition. Sometimes I wish I’d never read one story by Raymond Carver but here we are. Anyways other characters in Sleepovers with mental or physiological limitations are people I’ve loved in my life that I don’t see too much in today’s literary world and that’s not fair. Their world is just as real as anyone else’s and it should be seen. And as far as being circumscribed geographically, this is a revelation that I didn’t discover until I moved away from home for college. So because many people don’t leave back home and Sleepovers are stories from there, almost all the characters are not aware that they’re circumscribed geographically. One character moves back after college but that’s because she’s the only one left to inherit the farm. So I wrote this collection with an awareness of both my first world and second world, my small tightknit Southern Baptist God led rural community and my large diverse traffic filled expensive progressive city. Since leaving for college I’ve oscillated between the two and honestly they’re both unaware of how circumscribed they are! So in some ways I hope Sleepovers can bring folks from the two worlds together.
A sleepover is, for a night, treating someone else’s home like yours; why was this conceit so central to you?
Back home, you come in the door, get a hug around your neck whether you want one or not, and if there’s food you’re gonna get offered some or if the TV’s on you’re gonna get asked if there’s something you want to watch. This is how I grew up. If this didn’t happen when you entered a home, the family was seen as stuck up or “too good.” So there’s that. But especially if I’m trying to get readers from all across the board to see these often unseen characters and share these uncomfortable experiences with them, everyone needs to feel welcome right from the start as soon as they walk in the “door.” Honestly though, I was just trying to think of a good title for the collection and my boyfriend suggested Sleepovers. And I sat down and re-read the story and agreed with him.
Michael Mungiello is from New Jersey. His Twitter is @_______Michael_.