Ashleigh Bryant Phillips on “Losing Our Real True South” to Capitalism

Ashleigh Bryant Phillips’ debut collection, Sleepovers, won the 2019 C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book Prize, judged by Lauren Groff. There are 23 stories in all — some of them no more than a couple of pages — and it’s the perfect book to read if you’re struggling to concentrate as I am right now. I fell in love with these characters and the world she brings so vibrantly to life, all of them set in and around her hometown of rural Northeastern, North Carolina. I emailed Ashleigh some questions recently and we talked about transitions, point of view, childhood friendships, and her favorite Southern writers who aren’t named Faulkner, Eudora, or Flannery. 

You’ve said your characters are “caught in memory and in the present,” which feels exactly right to me. One of my favorite passages is from “The Virgin,” in which the narrator is driving to the Apple store to get her iPhone fixed and listening to “When Doves Cry” when she remembers Weston: “Before Weston left me, he put me in handcuffs and held my head underwater in the bathtub. I would have done anything for him. I pass fields and then the fields turn to nice houses and traffic.” It’s the perfect example of past and present colliding, and it’s what makes your characters so fully realized. Can you say more about this collision, or how you go about weaving backstory/memories into the narrative?

I grew up in this vacuum where time doubles over on itself. My aunt would tell me these stories about my grandmama, who passed away before I was born. And my aunt would be telling me the story in the same kitchen that my grandmama grew up in. And as a child I was aware of that — being in the same place where the actual past happened. Those stories just came alive in my head so easy. All I’d have to do is just ask my aunt what my grandmama’s favorite color was and there was my grandmama as a little girl in the kitchen with me wearing that color dress. And this transcends the familial, it’s the same way in the community. Certain houses on Main Street were where stories happened, certain fields, even certain pews in the church where one particular family always sat for generations and generations. I’ve always been in the past and in the present in my head, as every human with a conscience is. It just feels like the culture I grew up in moved within this psyche and nothing else. So I think expressing this idea of being caught between the worlds in my fiction is just a natural extension.

Time works in such interesting ways in this collection, and I frequently asked myself, how did she do that? In “Shania,” for example, the narrator is seven years old, but in the second-to-last paragraph she’s an adult. It surprised and delighted me, and felt a bit like magic. When the narrative jumps ahead, do you know beforehand that it’s going to happen, or do you find it surprising and delightful as well? I suppose these aren’t mutually exclusive.

I try, to the best of my ability, to know pretty much the whole gist of a person’s life before I write their story. So what hurt me the most about Shania was how she ended up. And how I ended up. And how far away from each other that felt. I knew the story had to end there because that hurt was what told me to write the thing in the first place. I was listening to an Atlas Sound’s song, “The Screens,” and the first line is “I knew a guy.” I played that over and over while I wrote “Shania.” I had to revisit Shania when I “knew” her, when we were little and close, but I also wanted to revisit those memories because overall it was a fun and magical time. But the story wouldn’t be complete without jumping ahead in time. And I honestly didn’t think about that jump as unusual until I workshopped it in grad school and folks suggested I create more balance with it, to create more time in between the jump. But that didn’t make sense to me.

In “The Mattress,” I stopped reading at this paragraph and chewed on it for a long while: “But we return to him on the mattress with the elderly woman.” I love that, as it made me think of the story as a film or play. I could imagine a director somewhere saying “cut” and setting up the next scene. Do you think of your stories visually, and does that allow you more freedom of movement? So many of them would make excellent short films.

Gosh thanks for saying so! “The Mattress,” “An Unspoken,” and “Return to the Coondog Castle” feel more movie-like to me, because they’re all jumping between points of view. Kinda like a montage in a way rather than a continuous thought. I’d forgotten I’d written the “we” in there until seeing your question! But whenever I write the story, the setting and surroundings are pretty much realized. I’m not making much up when I’m in there writing from the place. I pretty much see it all before I write it.

Though most of the stories in Sleepovers are in first or third person, there are also a few second person stories, and I’m such a sucker for second person POV. I find it hypnotic, both as a reader and a writer. I find it so hypnotic that I mostly avoid it because I’ll just start narrating everything in second person and get stuck there. What are your thoughts on second person? Also, how do you know which point of view will be best for a particular story, and does that ever change with revision?

I use second person in “Charlie Elliott.” And this is after years of the story rolling around in my head and me trying to find the right point of view for it. So yes, points of view can change with revision. “Charlie Elliott” is based on the life of my great uncle Jimmie Bolton, who passed away before I was born. I grew up hearing his story my whole life and I always was curious about how it felt to be him, growing up in my tiny rural community. I didn’t know much about second person POV until I got to grad school. It just so happened that my mentor in grad school, Clyde Edgerton, recommended that I read House of Prayer No. 2, by Mark Richard, which is Richard’s autobiography told entirely in second person. After reading that I thought, not only do I want to explore what life was like for my Uncle Jimmie, but I want others to feel it too. Because everyone needs to feel like an outsider in order to love and understand others. So I gave it a whirl with “Charlie Elliott” and I’m just glad and lucky that folks felt something from it.

As I read, I found myself looking for recurring themes, characters, places, phrases and idioms. I was searching for connections, perhaps because of the number of characters and stories, and the brevity of so many of them, but also because I became invested in these characters’ lives and was hoping to revisit some of my favorites. I love how somebody’s always putting somebody else on a prayer list, for example. (My goal in life is to stay off everybody’s prayer list, but they never give you any choice in the matter, do they?) Is there any particular way you want people to read the collection, to think about it as a whole, or to know going into it?

I’ll say that when I was writing the stories I was not thinking about a collection. Towards the end of grad school someone said to me I ought to try to connect some of the stories because it could make it more marketable. So I attempted that where it felt most natural. Mrs. Creech shows up in three stories. I love her so much. But I guess I’d just want folks to know that all these stories came from the same geographical location: A small and isolated rural community in northeastern North Carolina, one of the poorest parts of the state, where there’s actually more deer than people per mile. And all these stories all came from my mind and whatever I was working through emotionally at the time or was obsessed with at the moment. When I wrote “The Chopping Block” for example, I’d been listening to “In Dreams” by Roy Orbison feverishly. I mean even blasting it out the jukebox in the pool hall when me and my pals would go out for a fun time. Not exactly the song for playing pool, but it meant everything to me then to hear it whenever I could.

A number of these stories are about friendships — the beginnings and endings — some of which are covered in a few pages. The friendship ends because someone moves away or there’s a falling out (or perhaps just a failure to truly connect in the first place). As a kid, so many relationships are based on proximity. You ride bikes with those who live in your neighborhood, have sleepovers with all the girls in your fourth grade class. This being said, I don’t think about it much — how/why things ended, and the greater significance of these often short-lived relationships that served their purpose at the time. Is this a theme you’ve always been interested in, and do you have any thoughts about why? Now I’m also thinking about all of those lost friendships, and wanting to explore them more…

I never realized how wonderful it was eating with my family every Sunday at the Sunday buffet, with all my cousins and aunts and uncles and mama and daddy and sister and grandaddy and everyone else in the community at all the other tables until I went away to college and my roommates didn’t get to see their cousins but once a year. I was reading this interview yesterday with the great Eastern North Carolinian writer, Randal Kenan, and the interviewer asked him “How has travel contributed to your ability to pay attention?” And he said, “I think travel sharpens. When you go away, paradoxically, home gets sharper.” I started writing short stories when I left home. I missed home. But I also realized the more I was away, the more I learned of the outside world, the less I was able to return home and be content. I started to mourn the happy home life I’d never be able to have again. And just like all the funerals I grew up going to, the preacher would always share these rich stories from that person’s life, what made them special. That’s what writing feels like. I’m always mourning home.

You sent out an email to let potential readers know when Sleepovers will be published, where and how they can buy it, and otherwise support the collection. There was information about the importance of preorders, but also about writing book reviews, your availability to meet with book clubs, posting on social media, and a link to your (excellent!) trailer. It’s an email, but it’s also like a how-to guide for debut authors. Reading it made me realize how much more I could have done when my debut novel was published in 2014, and how I wish I could do it over again. Anyhow, what I’m getting at is this: have you always been marketing savvy? How do you get over the fear/resistance/embarrassment of promoting your own work (if there is fear/resistance/embarrassment)? Also, will you give me lessons, please?

Wow-marketing savvy! I’ve never seen myself this way. But I will say that hearing a Southern Baptist preacher every Sunday delivering a message about his concern for your soul in the afterlife and seeing him get folks to do what he believes you should do probably has influenced my idea of effective communication. I didn’t initially want to send that email because I didn’t want to look desperate, but then I thought about my characters and the people that they’re based off of and I love them and I deserve to give them the best shot possible for others to get to know them too. Not attempting to would be a disservice to them. And that’s not fair. The greater mission with Sleepovers is to show how the folks back home don’t have up-to-date education or healthcare or well-paying jobs or decent internet, but they do have iPhones, create art, and are interested in classical music. And most importantly, folks back home are capable of what so many others in America are able to do. They just don’t have easy access. I mean if I was still living back home, I’d have to drive two hours to either Richmond or Raleigh to find a bookstore. You can just imagine what the resources for fighting against diabetes or poverty or addiction would look like there. So I wrote the best lil’ informative email that I could. And yes, of course, I’d love to help you with some marketing/communication strategies!

As a fellow woman and Southerner, I feel obligated to ask you the questions I’ve never managed to escape myself, but feel free to ignore any or all of them: how do you feel about being labeled a Southern writer, and how has being a Southerner affected your writing? Finally, do you feel like women here have different or unique struggles than women anywhere else? (This last one is one, in particular, has always stumped me, but they all stump me).

I don’t like being labeled a Southern writer because it’s not about the North vs. South anymore. It’s about Rural vs. Urban. And furthermore, it’s about Rich vs. Poor. The rural South, where I grew up, has the highest poverty rates in the country. Within the state of North Carolina, my home county is one of the poorest, as are the counties that surround it. And this is all the truth, and if that truth helps my stories get in front of more people, then fine. But I don’t want folks from cushy money backgrounds who grew up in apartment buildings in busy cities to turn away. I want them to be just as in awe of Krystal’s dives as Miss Shirley is in “The Locket.” I didn’t write this with any specific audience in mind. I wrote this for everyone. And “expert Southerners” who can’t talk about anything else other than THE SOUTH are annoying as hell anyways.

This idea of THE SOUTH being a force of differentiation is becoming less and less meaningful as urbanization and capitalism infects the region and small Southern towns and communities die out. I mean just look at the hog farming industry or the industrialization of agriculture. Rural Southerners, the folks who can teach us the most about making do with what we have, who are spiritually connected with the land they’ve farmed for generations, are having less and less access to quality education and healthcare and they’re out there doing the best they can to survive. America doesn’t care about country people, it never really has. Especially poor country people. We’re losing our real true South, we’re losing our accents, our nuanced traditions and storytellers, and it’s being replaced with as many “hip” capitalistic biscuit opportunities like expensive “New South” Chicken & Waffle places and “cute” Kiss My Grits type tee-shirts as possible. Thank the Lord folks still respect lil’ smoke shack, cash-only BBQ joints, from what I’ve seen in North Carolina anyways. Shoutout to B’s BBQ in Greenville and Bunn’s in Windsor.

As for the second part of your question, I can only speak from my experience. And I’ll say that women who survive within the constraints of poverty have similar struggles as any other women fighting to survive within the constraints of poverty in other places in the world. Now, each place will have its own specific cultural inequality. In America we’re strangled by our racism. And that strangling is tighter when you’re in the South. It’s hard to compete on the level America demands of you when you learn from outdated textbooks, and you’re watching your family members die from alcohol or drugs or obesity-related diseases, and there’s little to no opportunity to see another way of life except through TV shows. And things happening on those TV shows might as well be happening on another planet. I remember being little and watching cartoons. On “Hey Arnold” there was a character called The Stoop Kid and I didn’t know what the Sam Hill a “stoop” was. I’d never heard that in my life. It was always “porch.” One time “The Rugrats” aired a Passover episode and that got me really thinking because here they were talking about Moses but they were saying they were Jewish and lighting candles on this ornate looking candle stick. So in a way, bless the TV for showing me other cultures. But as a white woman from a poor rural Southern town, I had a better chance of getting out of that cycle. And I never would have known this had I not ever left and that’s fucking wrong.

Who are your favorite Southern writers? I feel like this is also a question I’ve been asked so many times that I just have a ‘blanket’ answer for. It’s not that I don’t still love Flannery, of course I love Flannery, but I’m not sure she really influenced me all that much. Maybe we should limit it to those living… who are your favorite living Southern writers? Have you read Ellen Gilchrist? I think you’d like her.

I have a copy of Ellen Gilchrist’s In the Land of Dreamy Dreams but every time I’ve tried to read it before it hasn’t right out grabbed me. But that’s not to say it won’t grab me here within the next couple of years or so. I do love the title though.

It’s funny that you bring up Flannery. The first short story I turned into workshop, the folks said, “This reminds me of Flannery.” I’d only read one short story by Flannery in my life and I wasn’t attempting to replicate her work. I didn’t like being boxed in that way. I went home and stewed on it and figured it’s just because my characters said “Ain’t” and “Mama” and “Daddy.” And I thought that was such an easy and safe thing to say in the workshop. If you identify as a woman from a Southern state or are attempting to write “Southern fiction” — which you have no business doing if you’re not from a deep, isolated, true, Southern culture, in my opinion — I bet you a hundred bucks someone out of a room of five well-read people is going to say one of these names: Flannery O’Connor or Eudora Welty if you’re white, Zora Neale Hurston or Alice Walker if you’re a person of color but especially if you’re black, or Carson McCullers if you have a young person narrator or a gender/sexually fluid character. And while I find this point of reference to these genius predecessors helpful, it can also be stifling and doesn’t exactly propel the artform forward. I’m tired of conversations about Southern writing that only harps on the history of it, figuring out how it fits into the canon. What’s something new we can learn about fiction from women in the South? How does it cross over with work from the great rural French writer Ines Cagnati or the great Spanish Surrealist writer Leonora Carrington or the music of Nina Simone? Southern fiction is going to keep staying in that stupid insular box as long as we keep putting it in there with as many biscuits and magnolias and whiskey bottles as possible. There’s a whole fascinating world outside of those clichés too and it’s realer than anything you’ve seen before. And that’s the world I’m interested in.

With all this said, my favorite Southern writer is Carson McCullers. I didn’t read her until grad school. You can tell just by reading one sentence from Carson that she knows her characters from the inside out, through and through. She knows their whole lifetime. But Carson McCullers is not just a Southern writer either, she’s one of the greatest writers there ever was in this whole wide world.

Here’s a list of my favorite living Southern writers, who are also the greatest living writers in the whole wide world: Mark Richard and Randall Kenan, for writing some of the most perfect short stories there ever were. I’m thinking of Richard’s “Her Favorite Story” and “Strays” and Kenan’s “Run, Mourner, Run” and “The Origin of Whales” in particular. But if you’ve never read the work of Kiese Laymon, then stop right now and read whatever you can find. His essay on Outkast for the Oxford American’s Georgia  music issue is one of my favorites. It’s called “Da Art of Storytellin’ (A Prequel).” I love the rural poems of North Carolina’s Tyree Daye too — he’s from Youngsville and his poetry collection is called River Hymns, go get it now. And Kendra Allen from Texas is also creating some of the bravest and most important work out there right now with her nonfiction. Her debut collection is called When You Learn The Alphabet, and you need to read it.

Ashleigh Bryant Phillips suggests donations to Emancipate North Carolina, a Durham-based nonprofit organization focused on dismantling structural racism and mass incarceration across North Carolina through community organization and mobilization.

By Ashleigh Bryant Phillips
Hub City Press
Published June 16, 2020