Voices call back to one another throughout Ashley Farmer’s Beside Myself—the breaks between stories sometimes function like key changes, encouraging readers to receive the book’s motifs in different ways. The effect is a kind of music of stasis, transcribed through Farmer’s prose—a collection of speakers who look forward or look back or consider their lack of progress, and who, when read together, leave readers with something symphonic.
Beside Myself includes both flash-fiction-style pieces and slightly longer works, all of which reflect Farmer’s background as a poet and have the charge of work written in unfamiliar territory. We spoke by phone recently about the book’s assembly of voices.
The Rumpus: The stories throughout Beside Myself use details judiciously—enough to establish a tone or a sense of place but often without explicitly establishing setting, or giving readers more than they need. For you as a writer, is this a matter of instinct? Or do you find yourself making hard choices as you revise a story?
Ashley Farmer: For me, a lot of what I was considering had more to do with images, and how those images related to a certain place. So I didn’t think so much in terms of making conscious choices, but more revisiting some of the same locations from my childhood, places like that—still very vivid, alive; places that relate to one another. And as long as I was writing with that in mind, I felt like I was able to stay in the same territory in terms of setting and tone.
Rumpus: In terms of setting, how much do you yourself typically know, as opposed to what you ultimately give the reader? With respect to those locations from your childhood, for instance—are these places that you think of as one degree removed from where a specific story takes place?
Farmer: Yeah, I think that when I wrote a lot of the pieces, there were certain geographies that would come to mind from places I’d lived in the past, and so it felt really clear to me what some of those places looked like: certain woods; certain rivers; certain places in Kentucky, certain bridges; certain landmarks, they were really present in my mind. How much those come across on the page, I’m not really sure. But I also didn’t worry too much about that. I felt like, as long as the world was fully realized to me… Trusting that some of the world would be communicated to the reader, even if they’re only seeing just the edge of that world, one little corner of it.
Farmer: In my own work, I’ve been interested in writing about places that have held some mystery or that, even as an adult, I still feel curious about. A lot of those are natural places. I grew up with woods behind our house, and I lived for a while in the desert, where there were things like wild horses and mines that were still active. Even as an adult, things like that still kind of fill me with wonder. A lot of the other work I like to read has that too—someone like Richard Brautigan has that, of course; the mysterious aspects of nature. Looking at settings through that lens is something that excites me.
Rumpus: When you’re writing, how do you regard the role of the reader? How conscious are you of that role when you’re putting a story together?
Farmer: You know, with these pieces, I don’t know that I thought about it as much as I do now. I suppose I have a kind of faith and trust in a reader—that even an image or a detail can resonate somehow. And so I can’t say that with the pieces in Beside Myself, I really thought about that. It was more of a meditation for me on language and image. And then being able to share it with people—finding that some people can respond to it, appreciate some aspects of it, is really satisfying, something I’m grateful for. But I think about it more now—something I’m more conscious of in my work.
Rumpus: Is the work you’re doing now different in terms of form and structure, as well?
Farmer: I’m trying to write longer narratives, to sustain story in a way that I wasn’t very curious about when I was writing these pieces—which are probably closer to poems, or at least straddle that line. I think when you’re doing a longer story, you really do have to think about where you’re taking somebody. You have to arrive somewhere. With these shorter pieces [in Beside Myself], it’s not that type of journey.
Rumpus: With that in mind—because the stories in Beside Myself are so compact, lack the traditional arc you’d find even in a lot of short fiction, I wanted to know how you know when a piece was finished.
Farmer: I think for some of them, they felt complete right away. I’d write one down and it just felt finished, like one of those gifts that you get—it doesn’t happen all the time, but you write it and it feels complete. It does what it needs to do—it’s working on the language level and it’s communicating a certain moment that you’re hoping to communicate. Other pieces, particularly some of the longer pieces, I had to revisit often. And if I were to go back through this book with a pen, I think that I would find things that I would keep changing…probably forever, with a few of them. Even some of the really short ones. There are always ways to tinker with the little word machines that you make.
Rumpus: Was the process, then, of writing something like “Where Everyone’s a Star” very different from writing some of the other pieces in the book?
Farmer: Yeah. I mean, I really admire people who can tell longer stories. And I’m drawn to reading a lot of short work myself. I think for a few of these, I had hopes that maybe they’d blossom or evolve into longer scenes. And my tendency is really just to…I value economy, and I value—for these pieces in particular—an attention to language. So even for those that took longer to write, like “Where Everyone’s a Star,” I still came back to it with the same eye toward those same concerns that would make it best shorter. That piece had been a lot longer and became shorter over time. A few of the others too—especially as I looked at the language of them.
Rumpus: I noticed some stories in the book share not only the same concerns but also specific motifs or details. You know, “Pink Water” and “Assembled” both mention cosmetics counters. And I wanted to know if you conceived of any stories in the book as in dialogue with one another.
Farmer: I think so. There were sort of two different…a sort of adult perspective and more of a child perspective. And I felt like there was a focus on the nuclear family. Certain characters kind of reoccur—there’s a father, a mother, brothers. And even though they’re not fully fleshed-out characters—if anything, they’re archetypes, little snapshots—I felt like I was revisiting the same people there. That’s true too of the couple of love stories—those are revisiting the same kind of mystery. And, as you mentioned too, in the stories from the adult’s perspective, revisiting some of the different jobs and relationships. So you see those speaking to one another, too.
Rumpus: Is it a challenge working in archetypes? Having a story demand certain things of a character, with you coming in—on the level of archetype—with certain fixed assumptions about what that character is or how it functions?
Farmer: Actually, I had a lot more of those pieces within earlier drafts of the book, pieces that later on didn’t seem to fit. Maybe there were aspects that were at odds with each other. So, without thinking in terms of fully fleshed-out character and still hoping to make the book consistent, I had to choose carefully, think about the way that those people are relating to one another and maybe changing a little bit throughout the book itself.
I also found it interesting—a bit obsession, a curiosity of mine at the time—was thinking about family in the sense of how you relate to one another simply by the roles that you play, the roles you’re assigned to play. So I was tinkering with that in these pieces.
Rumpus: I found “Coffin Water” compelling in that respect—the father’s difficulty understanding his daughter.
Farmer: Oh, thank you.
Rumpus: Can you describe the process of sequencing your stories as you and Tiny Hardcore put the book together?
Farmer: I had worked with it myself over a couple of years, really trying to look at the way I could juxtapose one story against another or create friction—generate some energy by putting certain pieces next to each other. And my husband, who writes too, is someone who helped me think about that. So I did it by myself quite a bit, but when I worked with Tiny Hardcore, Allison Wright is someone I worked with there who had some great ideas about how the pieces might work together, too. Overall, we sequenced it probably twenty times from when I first thought of it as a manuscript and saw that it could work that way, to when it was finally published.
Rumpus: On the level of character, a lot of the narrators in Beside Myself are inside their own heads, either looking forward or looking back. What do you find most appealing about characters in that state?
Farmer: I think that’s where my background in studying poetry and writing poetry is reflected. That kind of introspection, that kind of looking back, the dream element…I guess I don’t think of it so much as characters looking back or looking forward. When I originally wrote those pieces, some of them were originally text poems that became stories, so that’s where those perspectives probably originated. From thinking more in terms of poetry than in terms of characters who have really defined ideas and desires, who change throughout the course of a book.
Rumpus: That’s going to make my next couple of questions…difficult to ask. And probably to answer as well. I’m going to see if I can find a way to do it. I’d originally wanted to ask about the challenges—or advantages—of writing static characters. If you’re approaching the stories in terms of voice and image, and less so character and circumstance, where do you find the momentum in the pieces comes from? If not a character pursuing a change—writing a story outside of an actor within a particular set of circumstances.
Farmer: That’s a good question. Some of it probably comes from my own taste as a reader. I think that I’m drawn often to shorter works, works that feel focused, and earnest in trying to communicate something. I feel pretty content where others might not, simply glimpsing just a fragment of somebody’s life. I feel okay not knowing the character’s whole story. Instead, I like the intimacy of peeking in on a particular moment when someone is standing at a window, or walking along water, or trying to puzzle out some piece of their past that maybe doesn’t make sense. I feel excited myself by reading work that does that, even if there’s a kind of challenge in that. And writing these pieces, sometimes it felt pretty personal. So as a writer, there’s motivation there. Trying to capture a person, or even the idea of a person, in an important or strange or charged moment of their thinking—or just being—was enough for me.
Rumpus: How are you as a reader of your own work? If you revisit a piece you’ve written, is the mystery surrounding that voice… Is that still there for you? Is it something you can manifestly enjoy?
Farmer: I’m a tough reader of my own work, going back to it. This world, this book, feels kind of finished for me—I see it now like [a collection of] dreams that are finished. That’s how this whole little world feels to me. So in some ways it’s a little distant, and I can also see things that I would probably do differently even now. But I also feel like the book itself is just a snapshot of a particular time, things that I was interested in for a while, and I think I can just let it be that and move on.
Rumpus: You’ve mentioned poetry writing before. Are the pieces in this book the closest things you’ve written to straightforward prose fiction to date? That have been published, anyway?
Farmer: Yes. They’re the closest to fiction. When I was in graduate school, I was there to study poetry, but I also had the fortune of being in a program where I could take lot of classes in the study of fiction, and had some chances to write it. What I think ended up happening is I’ve become interested in hybridity—where those things overlap. I also feel like I’ll always be excited to experiment and try something new. So I think the new challenge will be trying to sustain a longer narrative and figure out the puzzle of that.
Rumpus: And how long have you taught writing for now?
Farmer: This is my fourth year, outside of one year in graduate school. Composition, first- and second-year writing, primarily.
Rumpus: Has being a teacher affected the way you approach your own work?
Farmer: I think they’re very complimentary disciplines, and I think one can become a better, more critical reader all of the time. Teaching certainly sharpens those skills. And being a writer too is something that’s really great to bring into the classroom. A lot of the kids I teach to are freshmen and sophomores, and some of them feel very challenged by the writing process, and I can share with them that I understand what that feels like. You know, how difficult it is to sit down to a blank screen.
Rumpus: I wanted to close by asking how much you think about class while writing. In a story like “Perfect Christmas,” we get the sense that a narrator is working-class, and I was curious whether, inasmuch as you’re thinking about the person behind the voice, if it’s important to you to depict a certain kind of experience? Or if this is something that comes part and parcel with the images you find compelling—that provoke you to write.
Farmer: In writing any of these pieces, I think that my own concerns certainly about things like class, gender, certain political issues that are important to me… They make their way in somehow. The way they might make their way into your dreams. I haven’t done that consciously, but I think it’s definitely there. And all of those things are interesting to me, and in some of the work I’m doing now, I’m addressing some of those very things with a little more purpose and consciousness.