Beth Gilstrap on Titles, Flash Fiction, and “Deadheading”

Whether reading her beautifully-detailed descriptions of place in the outstanding “What Magic” and “Lake Hartwell, South Carolina” or diving into the hurt but determined mind of Layla in “Still Soft, Still Whole” and “Deadheading,” it’s clear that Beth Gilstrap knows how to capture the essential truths of place and people. Her latest collection, Deadheading & Other Stories, is a beautiful, affecting work — one that, with lyrical prose, explores what it means to survive in the South.

Gilstrap is the winner of the 2019 Women’s Prose Prize from Red Hen Press for Deadheading & Other Stories. She is also the author of I Am Barbarella: Stories (2015) from Twelve Winters Press. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina with a house full of critters.

It was my pleasure to be able to talk to her about, among other things, flash fiction, good titles, and the South.

One of the things I appreciate so much about Deadheading is how it incorporates flash fiction, which is no surprise, I’m sure, for fans of your work. For you, what should good flash do?

Good flash sucks you into a character’s world through a cracked window and shoves you out the front door before you know what’s hit you. You should get a glimpse of a much larger world, which can and should be just as rich as a novel. You should be standing there on the porch when it’s over wondering what the hell just happened to you and how you can experience it again. In other words, though brief, it lingers, disorients, and by the end feels inevitable.

When you sit down to write, does your process or approach change depending on if you are working on flash fiction or more traditional-length short stories?

I’m not sure if my process is much different at the start of things. I have a fairly strict process in terms of the act of writing, which works best for me. I read and walk early. I write in the afternoons. I often write flash when I’m struggling with longer pieces and use forms and word limitations or prompts (anytime you can get in a workshop with Kathy Fish is a blessing) to help break things loose. I find word banks helpful, too and I suppose I am more playful in my flash because the brevity lends itself to experimentation. Flash drafts tend to come out in one sitting whereas the traditional length stories can take me months and even years.

Something I don’t see discussed enough is the art of titling. Good stories deserve good titles, and you have some really great ones in this collection, including “Earth Eating As Suppression,” “A Five-Pointed, Failed Paper Love Weapon,” and (my favorite of all) “The Gopher In Rae’s Chest.” How to you usually arrive at the titles for your stories?

When I was working as fiction editor for Little Fiction I learned how much impact the title of a piece had on how I read stories. Most of the time when a title was nondescript or simple, I went into a story without expectations. I’m not saying that’s necessarily bad because simple titles have their place but when you’re reading hundreds of submissions, an interesting title gets you excited from the beginning and I want to do whatever is in my power to start from a place of excitement. When I finish a story, I tend to put it away for a bit and let it marinate. I title them when I return with fresh eyes and I usually find titles inside the story. Sometimes I take last lines and move them to the title. Sometimes I use an evocative image. But my titles tend to do a lot of work by raising questions and, I hope, they become invitations.

Staying with this same topic of titles, your collection is titled Deadheading. Why did you go with this title?

Deadheading is a gardening term for cutting back spent flowers in order to promote reblooming by preventing seed production. I see this strong verb as a metaphor for the whole collection and I hope the way I’ve arranged the stories builds tension if they’re read in order and by the time you get to the title piece, which is also the last, it also feels inevitable and hopeful in the end. Every character in this book is ragged and worn down from trauma, but they’re all trying to find ways to survive and thrive in spite of their ghosts and hardships. Of course, I also love that it’s a word with multiple contemporary meanings and how it brings those connotations and questions to the table.

“Still Soft, Still Whole” captures the relationship between Layla and Beau. We see them as they meet at a Home Depot. We are there as they flirt. We see how they hit it off. We see them get married. I don’t want to spoil the story because I think it packs a lot of power it how it reveals itself, but I’ll just say there are problems. The next story, “Deadheading,” picks up with Layla again, and we get much more of her story.

I’m always interested in how characters come to us — and how some of them refuse to leave. For you, when you finished “Still Soft, Still Whole,” did you already know there was more left to Layla’s story? Or did this continuation come to you later on, after you’d already closed the previous story?

I almost always know when I finish a piece if there’s more to the story though I rarely know ahead of time what that entails. I am not a planner. I need to be surprised as I work; otherwise I get bored. If I am still curious, I know there’s something to keep working on. I knew Layla’s story wasn’t over, but it took months to get back to her. I was taking care of my mother-in-law at the time and wrote on days when she didn’t have doctor’s appointments, which as her health declined became few and far between. Still Soft, Still Whole ends with a traumatic event and there’s just no way I could leave Layla there in that moment. I needed to see how she coped, how she fared, how she found resilience in the wake of that. And in all my stories that connect through character and family this is the case. I care for them and if I’m doing my job, the reader does, too.

The stories in Deadheading are set in the American South — and specifically focused in the Carolinas. I know you’ve lived a large part of your life in and around this area. Does writing about a place so close to you give you an added pressure to get it right? Or does the closeness of home make it, in ways, easier?

I think there are benefits and downsides to writing a place you’ve lived most of your life. I know a lot of the history, particularly of Charlotte and the surrounding areas, so that gives my point of view of the place a richness I’m not sure you can reach any other way but it also puts limitations on how you see the place. After living forty years in the Charlotte Metro area, it is haunted by everything and everyone that’s been lost. Everything becomes a palimpsest. As I’m getting to know a new place (Louisville), I find it allows more room for my imagination to conjure images and narrative. I project, sure, but I am also discovering in a way I couldn’t in my hometown. Since I’ve been at this writing thing awhile now, I find I worry less about getting things “right.” My perception is colored by experience and someone else’s perception of the same place will always be different. The nature of truth, of reality, is constructed. We know so little about the universe I would never deign to think my perception is akin to truth so that helps me worry less and gives me the freedom I need to write what I need to write.

Finally, I want to ask about the relationship between this new collection and your previous full-length book, 2015’s I Am Barbarella. In what ways is Deadheading similar — and in what ways is it different?

There is a connecting storyline. Hardy, Janine, and Loretta all appear in the first book. When I sent out the manuscript for I Am Barbarella, I cut some of the stories which was something I later regretted. As I was putting Deadheading together, I thought a few of them would fit nicely with the rest of the book. The similarities come in character, voice, and style though I do think I have become a better writer since the first book as one would hope. Like I said above, I worry less and think Deadheading is in many ways a more authentic book because of it. I wrote the first book during my MFA program so I had a lot of input from mentors and classmates. My trust and confidence in myself as an artist has grown exponentially since then. My life was also relatively stable (for a person with mental illness) when I was writing the first book. In contrast, I wrote Deadheading at a time when my life was falling apart. To paraphrase the folks at a Japanese amusement park last year when they reopened following the first wave of the pandemic, Deadheading is the scream inside my heart. I wrote it to survive.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to me, Beth. Deadheading is a fantastic collection, and I hope it finds the audience it very much deserves!

By Beth Gilstrap
Red Hen Press
October 5, 2021