Beauty and Lightness: Gina Nutt and Ashley Farmer in Conversation

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Spring 2008, Ashley Farmer and I met at Syracuse University. Ashley was a first-year MFA candidate in an open poetry workshop that the instructor gave me permission to enroll in as a third-year undergraduate. The same semester, Ashley and I sat at drafting tables in a studio art class, sketching blue-jeans in pencil and painting grocery store cakes. Both the workshop classroom and the studio hummed with collaborative energy; the exchange existed between students, as well as students and the respective instructors, but also between the artists and the work they created. Reading Ashley’s writing that spring, and in the years that have since followed, I have felt this same synergy. Across four full-length works and a chapbook, she conjures dream-states, digital farms, off-kilter versions of the American Dream, unsettling domestic spaces, women who become the sum of our online searches; a deft hand at compressed narratives filled to emotional brims.

Ashley channels her exacting clarity and poetic sensibility in her latest work, Dear Damage, an essay collection following a family tragedy, in which Ashley’s grandfather shot her grandmother after a fall that left her paralyzed. This searching, lyrical exploration draws upon personal narrative, transcripts, court documents, and internet comments to reflect on family, mental health, guns, California, work, love, and the American Dream.

When I reached out to Ashley to request an interview, she suggested we interview each other, given shared themes in our essay collections, Syracuse history, and both our work across form. We spoke in February from our homes in Ithaca and Salt Lake City. A Joan Didion Library of America edition floated above Ashley’s head. We discussed bringing poetic backgrounds to nonfiction, David Berman, nostalgia, and how the open-genre approach of the Syracuse program primed us to work across genre. We collaborated on editing our two-hour dialogue for clarity and length.

Gina Nutt: We’re all smiles to talk about our sad books.

Ashley Farmer: Let’s go there!

GN: Your book gives us insight how to do this. There’s this moment when your husband, Ryan, says “You have to let the light in.” The first time my husband, Dave, read my galley he said, “It’s so weird reading it, because it’s you, but a very specific version of you.”

AF: It’s interesting, right? Because there’s a tension: in some ways we’re writing really revealing things and yet we’re very selective. The work is curated and it’s really personal, but you don’t give it all away either.

GN: It’s a balancing act. So I want to start by asking about the genre switch for you. Dear Damage is your first book of essays. I remember reading your essay “Mercy” in Gay Magazine, hearing your voice and clarity, and the gorgeous lyrical momentum I admire in your work. Your earlier books often involve surreal, dreamy elements. Strange things happen in the short fiction in Beside Myself. You expand on predictive text searches in The Women in unsettling ways and elaborate on computer farm games in The Farmacist and [the chapbook] Farm Town. Did the willingness to get weird open up your exploration and offer unexpected ways to write about these experiences?

AF: I think that the event within my family was so surreal that I just knew I was going to write about it. But the fact that it was surreal made it easier to enter into it: the emotional and intellectual experience of it was so strange that it made it a natural place to start writing a work of nonfiction.

My project pretty much started with that essay, “Mercy.” And then among more traditional essays, I have these moments in the book of flash fiction or poetry pieces. I felt really grateful to work with Sarah Gorham at Sarabande—she offered great guidance in terms of editing in such smart ways. But she also allowed me things, like these pieces that aren’t so much surreal as they are maybe more just poetry in nature, and associative. I was grateful for that. I got to balance my interests in terms of weirding out in my imagination in a prose poetry-type of way, but then working with essays grounded in reality, too.

GN: It makes sense that your earlier writing primed you to write through the surreal nature of the experience. I’m also curious about how you juggle timelines from one piece to the next—moving from childhood memories to adjunct life, leaving LA, relationships and marriage, and your work in an art museum—and weave in transcripts of conversations with your grandparents, Bill and Frances. Did you have a guiding framework for writing and organizing the collection?

AF: I wanted to clearly show how my grandparents’ lives and choices had influenced mine, so I tried to organize it in such a way that these juxtapositions and connections in terms of geography, jobs, womanhood, love, and aging were clear. I also knew I had an opportunity to break up the transcripts of our conversations in such a way that they’d become woven into the book and that the essays around them could reflect off of these transcribed sections. And although I didn’t plan it this way, I think the collection moves from shock to grief to what happens post-grief.

GN: You also weave in cinematic, poetic flash essays, many of which feel cast in golden-hour light, but they’re also acutely aware of darker personal and cultural undercurrents. One line that stuck with me especially: “What didn’t I want climbing out the basement window at midnight?” I love the way you write about nostalgia and coming-of-age, like the essay where you write about Kurt Cobain’s death and the impact of losing a celebrity—someone we feel like we know but actually don’t, which is a different experience now with social media.

AF: This is a question I also want to ask you: for me, I think that in writing about something so heavy—this mercy killing that happened in my family—I wanted to give myself permission to write about other things that just felt fun for me. I wanted to make some of it sweet. Like, if I’m going into the past, I also want to write about smoking Marlboro lights with my girlfriend at the park or sneaking out.

GN: There’s a charm to it. I have a lot of love for the 90s shopping mall. Seeing Titanic, going to the arcade, unwrapping a CD in the Burger King while I waited for my mom to pick me up.

AF: Oh, you’re conjuring this sensory memory: remember how hard it could be to open a new CD? The plastic and then the seal around the edge?

That makes me curious about something I love in your work. I have a couple questions in mind here: one is, I felt really interested in how you balanced these moments of beautiful nostalgia, even the way you talk about weather in upstate New York, how you talk about the malls—there’s an ambience and a lightness to it. I was trying to figure out how to write about something so heavy and balance it with another type of energy. So how did you do that?

GN: Hearing you notice balance means a lot to me. It wasn’t always there. It emerged over time with revision and reorganizing, on the level of individual essays and the entire book. I’m not sure I thought of it as light, but I enjoyed writing about watching horror movies with friends, seeing a whimsical taxidermy tableau, reading, writing, Dave. I hope these parts in the book bring a sense of lightness or hope. I also wanted to conjure stillness because being outside is one way I make sense of the heaviness, in the gorges or paths around Ithaca.

AF: You conjure place really well.

GN: So do you! I love how you write about place and explore the legacy of L.A. in your family. Part of the picture you paint emerges from the transcripts with your grandparents, which appear throughout the book. I love the warmth they bring to the essays. Did you initially record these conversations thinking you’d keep them as a family artifact or were they part of another project?

AF: I’ve always loved recordings—I have recordings of my siblings from when we were little and also of my grandparents that I recorded when I was thirteen. I don’t even know why I was interviewing them! There’s something about recordings that has always felt like a way of keeping people. But those particular interviews [the transcripts in the book], were recorded two weeks before the shooting happened. I visited my grandparents over the holidays, and on New Year’s Day I just sat with them in their living room. I was trying to write about how California had changed, how Ryan and I were having a very different experience than my grandparents or my mom and dad had. So I interviewed them in their living room and, a little more than two weeks later, everything was different. It felt lucky that I captured it. I also felt like, because I had told them I was writing a book about California and they knew I wanted to use their words, I had their permission: they knew I was going to use the transcript in a written piece. It just ended up becoming a different piece.

GN: It’s moving that you told them you were going to write a book about California and then you did. It reminds me of Jeannie Vanasco’s The Glass Eye, in which she promises her father she’ll write a book for him and she does. It’s a gorgeous memoir with collage and deep-dive family reported elements, which is another thing you do really well. And that you write about California has such a Didion… I see her—is that Didion behind you?

AF: Yes [points to bookshelf], behind me.

GN: Behind all of us who write nonfiction. Which I want to ask about because your collection calls The White Album to mind, the idea of life’s messiness and how we try and assign neat parameters to our experiences, which are often not so neat. You’re skilled at finding a throughline and branching out to complicate and deepen the work. How do you navigate the challenge in nonfiction of curating toward a specific current—cultural, familial, or emotional—and leave room for uncertainty?

AF: I felt like I should be as honest as possible about the fact that I had no easy conclusions. I also wanted a recursiveness throughout the book, because I was thinking about patterns within my family: my moving to California more than once, going back to literally the same places where different generations of my family had lived (almost by happenstance). Or writing about marriage: marrying, divorcing, and then marrying someone I’d danced with at my first wedding. So that recursiveness became the best throughline.

GN: I like how that first essay establishes a narrative and emotional core and gives a focal point the other essays orbit. Your exploration of uncertainty and complexity is part of what makes the book so powerful.

AF: I’m also thinking about when we choose to write about other people in our lives. You said something before about telling someone else’s story versus yours. You write about family—your uncle, your father-in-law, Dave. How did you make those decisions?

GN: It wasn’t an easy or apparent choice. Part of figuring out the line for me was seeing the effect when I took away details. I also showed Dave an early draft, asking some version of, “Am I crossing a line? Is this unfair?” Mostly, I overwrote and cut away, rewrote, cut away again. I calibrated each piece—and what to reveal, or not—differently. How did you find this balance?

AF: You said “fair” a moment ago and that’s how I tried to think about it, too. I wanted to do right by everybody. I asked people for permission. I relied a lot on my mom: if my mom felt okay about it, then I felt okay about it. And then there were certain moments in writing about Ryan where I was sort of like, “Okay, I made this! What do you think?”

Something about your book that I love is that it feels really timeless in terms of how you work with literature and cinema. And so many writers appear in your book: Wallace Stevens, Frank Stanford, Paul Celan, Lucie Brock-Broido, Joy Williams. Are these your influences? Or was their work resonating with you as you wrote this book?

GN: Lucie Brock-Broido, Frank Stanford, and Joy Williams are a few writers I return to again and again. Some of those writers I was reading or re-reading while I was writing this book, like Muriel Leung’s Bone Confetti. I was reading a lot of writing about death because that’s what I was thinking about; I felt comforted reading alongside those speakers. The way Stanford writes about death doesn’t bum me out. His work has this Southern Gothic feel, but it also has a shine.

AF: There is something about these events in our lives when we’re really shocked or grieving and details come into focus, things that are beautiful. Time stands still, which makes it easier to capture certain details or insights.

GN: Yeah, that sense of suspended time. Earlier you described the experience in your family as surreal, which sounds accurate to me. I think pressing into details we remember, spending time with specific moments, can unfold a meditation. Descriptions can be atmospheric and emotional. One memory came up often, and unexpectedly, for me was a meal friends brought us. Our books share different versions of this moment. I hadn’t really thought of this as something I’d write about though, it came up as I worked. Did you have any breadcrumb essays? Pieces inspired by something else you wrote, like a breadcrumb trail.

AF: Yes, writing about my grandparents’ marriage led to my writing about my relationship with Ryan. One thing opened up another. Then something like a song would come up in an essay and I’d think oh I just want to write this prose poem about it now, a little ditty. I’d get to something and think Oh, I want to do more with that.

GN: A little ditty. I love it. The circularity and picking up earlier threads reminds me of Elissa Washuta’s White Magic.

AF: Yes! Her writing is really just incredible. I’m definitely influenced by a lot of women writers.

GN: So who are some writers you looked to while writing and revising? You write about David Berman, how his music and poetry backlights your friendship and marriage to Ryan, like a soundtrack to accompany your relationship.

AF: Berman has been a thread throughout our  relationship, from early on when Ryan would make mix CDs with Silver Jews songs on them and send them through the mail. Then I got to know Berman’s writing. Berman also has a connection to my hometown of Louisville: he didn’t actually like Louisville, but he lived there and wrote about it. But in terms of his writing: Actual Air, good lord. His turns of phrase, the humor and pathos.

GN: I love Actual Air. I love how on the first snow every year, without fail, I see someone post the poem “Snow.” Or “Halloween” in the fall. Berman brought a warm, inviting spirit to art. Play the songs. Write the poems. Like, “It’s just a little ditty.” It can be fun and playful, even when we’re getting at deeper stuff. A balance of levity and depth. Who else did you look to while working on your book?

AF: You mentioned Didion, who can be complicated, but I really I’ve learned a lot from her. She writes about grief so well—I’d count her among influences. But there are so many writers my work doesn’t bear any resemblance to but that I love. Like Samantha Irby, Roxane Gay, Chelsea Hodson. Therese Marie Mailot’s Heart Berries. Who are some of yours?

GN: Chelsea Hodson, definitely, I remember reading Tonight I’m Someone Else and feeling so struck by those essays. Her writing is so poetic and meditative. I was really lucky she worked with me on Night Rooms, through the consultations she offers. I still think about her guidance and things she pointed out in my writing. And Chelsea recommended Elissa Washuta’s first book, My Body Is a Book of Rules.

AF: I also love Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams. Everything of hers is like a clinic on how to infuse researched work with personal narrative.

GN: Maggie Nelson.

AF: Oh yes, especially in terms of form. And Eula Biss! I’m late to Biss.

GN: I was late to Biss too! Oh, I also feel like my book is nothing like these, but during later revisions I read Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing and Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror and love both those books.

AF: These are all so fantastic. I’d love to know how you started Night Rooms? When did you know you were writing a book?

GN: I started the earliest seeds after Dave’s dad passed away. I was struggling to keep up with writing because I was just writing about death but when I went with it I fell into the work and eventually had an essay I revised. Eventually, I submitted that essay and continued writing short bursts that wove in horror movies, thinking, Maybe I’ll expand this. My early starts were very much all over the place. [The lit mag] Cosmonauts Avenue accepted that first essay and I just kept going. Writing is always an act of faith. I often feel like, “I’ll just go in my little office and do my writing every morning and hope.” But having the cookie along the way can feel like a sign I’m on the right track.

AF: You’re right about the act of faith. You’re making something, and for someone else to see and recognize what you’re doing, to feel like someone gets it—that gives you momentum.

GN: That’s so true, because it’s really hard to keep writing. I write every day and it never gets easier. Where were you in the process when “Mercy” published in Gay Magazine? Did you have a complete manuscript when the first essay found a home?

AF: I didn’t really have much when I placed that piece. I’d written a little bit about adjunct teaching and leaving California. The “main event” is what I wrote first and it’s what appears first in the book before it becomes a different kind of storytelling.

GN: Starting there prompts the exploration that follows, rather than building toward a big moment, and it has wide meditative reach. You say the hard thing and then delve into family, California, work, love. I keep circling back to those transcripts. I especially like the one where you’re talking about an earthquake and Frances is like, “No school.” Those conversations really speak to their personalities. And my first-year comp instructor brain is kicking in, like, primary source. Speaking of which, I’m drawn to how you write about adjunct work. You’re straightforward about the reality that “higher ed seems to work just fine.” Before we started recording you shared you’ve had a steady eight years in art museums. And in the collection, you describe the moment you went into the office and saw ordinary objects like a desk, a stapler.

AF: My own shiny stapler, yes!

GN: Those things can feel certain. For adjuncts, it’s like, “Here’s a key to the office you share with five other people for the next 15 weeks.” If you’re lucky enough to have an office and you’re not holding office hours in your car. Assuming you have a car. I know you edit for [the lit mag] Juked and still keep up with writing, in addition to holding down a job. How do you sustain your writing practice and find community beyond academia?

AF: In writing about adjunct teaching, I was aware that my problems with the system are not unique. But I wanted to share my perspective as it related to my general sense of an unsteady world at that time. I also wanted to write a love letter of sorts: all of that fondness and excitement I felt for my students. I have to say that, even then, my job fed my writing and I found community with other writers and artists getting by as adjuncts in L.A. Today I still seek inspiration in my day-to-day work. It’s a puzzle piece that fits together with writing. I admire that you write every day! How do you balance things? And like me, you don’t work in academia either.

GN: I’ve worked as a bookseller longer than I’ve worked in academia. I enjoyed working with students, but I struggled with the instability. There are more sustainable ways to teach, even if not in a full-time capacity. I’ve taught with Catapult and that’s a meaningful way to work with writers who want to carve out time to write alongside day jobs.

AF: Professors we studied with talked about possibilities for writers beyond academia. I think about George Saunders telling stories about jobs he had, like sitting in his car outside an office park and writing.

GN: My first job after grad school was at the local grocery co-op. It paid the bills and I still made time to write. Sometimes the way you earn a living isn’t connected to your writing in obvious ways, but it can fuel the work, or give you time away from the desk. It’s a way of being in the world, which is part of being a writer.

AF: Can I ask about how your relationship with Dave, another writer, factors into your process?

GN: We often share smallish pieces. I used to share earlier in the process. Now I hold off because I want to figure out as much as I can before sharing. We occasionally trade longer work, but we like to take things as far as we can on our own. Dave usually offers first eyes on work I intend to share though. Do you and Ryan trade?

AF: Yes, we’ll go on walks and talk about different possibilities for characters or think out loud: “What if things are in this order instead?” We’re each other’s readers and we’re pretty candid and kind. It’s nice encouragement to live under the same roof with someone who’s trying to finish a project—you know, someone who understands the process.

GN: Who gets that you have to get your work done. And all those years when maybe there’s no publication, no book or journal publications. It’s hard to justify those stretches of time when what we have to show for our time is the work itself and that’s it.

AF: That’s right. I mean, this book took me five years and I have 200 pages to show for it! To some people, that’s not necessarily the best use of your time. But someone who really cares about words the way that you do helps you remember why you’re doing it. Helps you remember that it can become something. What are you working on these days?

GN: I’m working on a novel, which is a change of pace from Night Rooms, but you can write a different book every time. It’s something I admire about your work. Each of your books feels distinct, but they all exist in the Ashley universe.

AF: Thank you. I have a half-finished collection of stories and then wonder if I should try a novel or more essays. I like to work in different genres and you do, too. I wonder if that’s a Syracuse thing? We were really given permission to do that.

GN: I feel it’s a big part of the program. We had leeway to write and decide what the work was later. That fluidity is so generative. Writing and seeing what happens, following your interests, the sentence, or the emotional heart. I’m hearing echoes of all our teachers. For one class, Michael Burkard led us to a gallery, we wandered around and wrote and shared what we came up with later. I also loved the option to take open workshops opposite the main genre we studied. That’s where you and I met, in an open workshop.

AF: And we had art class together!

GN: The cake painting you made! I love that we both write about that art class in our books. Before we part, I’d love to know what’s on the horizon for you. Are you writing anything new, or are you focused on publication as Dear Damage goes into the world?

AF: I want to get messy into something right now, to find a topic I want to obsess about for a little while, something with beauty and lightness. I feel like I’m ready to turn the channel.

ASHLEY MARIE FARMER is the author of the new essay collection Dear Damage (Sarabande Books), as well as three other collections of prose and poetry. Her work has been published in places like TriQuarterly, The Progressive, Santa Monica Review, Buzzfeed, Flaunt, Nerve, Gigantic, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Best American Essays notable distinction, Ninth Letter’s Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction, the Los Angeles Review’s Short Fiction Award, as well as fellowships from Syracuse University and the Baltic Writing Residency. Ashley lives in Salt Lake City, UT with the writer Ryan Ridge. You can find her at ashleymfarmer.com.