Peg Alford Pursell’s stunning new collection, A Girl Goes into the Forest, explores the complexities of love and loss through seventy-eight hybrid stories and fables.
One of the most striking aspects of A Girl Goes into the Forest is the weight and resonance of the whole. You can dip in one story at a time, appreciating the language, the subtly observed moments of human connection (and disconnection), reading with that meditative attention demanded by poetry. But when the stories are read consecutively, you become aware of the thoughtful threading that exists from one story to the next like a spider’s web, each piece reliant on another. Truly, the book is like an album of music, with echoing refrains and lines that you want to rewind and memorize.
Alford Pursell is the founder and director of the national reading series Why There Are Words and the WTAW Press. Her writing has previously appeared in numerous venues, including Tupelo Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, and Joyland. Her first story collection, Show Her A Flower, A Bird, A Shadow, was awarded the 2017 Indie Award for Literary Fiction.
It is my pleasure to speak with Peg about her process for this newest book, crafting microfictions, and literary citizenship.
The Rumpus: Tell me about your process in assembling a collection so diverse in form and point of view. Was there a seed for the whole?
Peg Alford Pursell: There wasn’t a seed that I’ve yet become aware of. As is usually the case, I wasn’t sure what I was doing for some time. It took writing some of the stories before I became aware that I was writing through a sense of loss that was running through me at that time, and I allowed that to take over, without concern for what might show up on the page, which was anxiety-producing and liberating. This theory about what I was writing allowed me to find and make the book.
Rumpus: Yes, the ephemeral nature of feelings and even identities, especially as a young girl, that thematic girding is clear. Did you find the writing cathartic, in terms of the loss you were experiencing?
Alford Pursell: I’m not sure how cathartic, necessarily, but it is fascinating to see what turns up. The losses are maybe best compared to transitions, those that result from the inevitable living of our lives: our parents age, our mothers become ill, our children grow into adults, our relationships strain, break, renew, transform. Certainly, since the 2016 election, real losses of a different sort are piling up, especially for the most vulnerable in this country, which in this patriarchal system includes, always, women and children, not to say anything of the planet itself, and these are impossible not to feel and find their way into what I write in one way or another.
Rumpus: I’m curious about the title story. It’s set apart from the sections, at the book’s opening. Did you write it early on or toward the end of assembling the collection?
Alford Pursell: The title story “A Girl Goes into the Forest” did come later, maybe nearer to the end of writing this book. I’ve never been a writer who can come up with an idea and write to it, though, dear heavens, I’ve wanted and tried for that. As for the actual title itself, of the story and of the book, once it came to me, I couldn’t let it go. I liked that it shared a similarity to jokes that begin like “A dog walks into a bar…” I wanted the juxtaposition of the lightness associated with joke-telling to the darkness implicit in the idea of a girl going into the forest.
Rumpus: I love that. The balance of levity is so necessary, always, but now more than ever.
Alford Pursell: I agree. We have to laugh. Lately, I’ve been working on something or other that seems like it’s going to be a lyric essay about laughter. We’ll see. But I now have sixty-three pages of single-spaced notes from researching the topic of laughter, including a breakdown of the sounds of various kinds of laughs (distinguished by vowel patterns) and what each type of laugh means, which is fun to think about, how serious the business of laughter is. In fact, I learned there exists the study of laughter, gelotology, that looks at the psychological and physiological effects of laughing on the body.
Rumpus: There were moments in your collection that made me smile, but it was the aching kind. The flash piece “Geniuses,” comes to mind, specifically when the omniscient narrator says, “Whoever asks to be anyone’s daughter?” That line cut me, but also made me laugh because it’s so true! Being a daughter shouldn’t be the short straw, but it can feel that way and that story articulates it so succinctly.
Alford Pursell: I do investigate that sense of a young girl’s growing awareness that culturally she is deemed less than a boy. I remember as a child not being seen in the same light as my older brother and because I knew him in the way that children know one another (he was just eighteen months older), I knew that he was definitely not special because he was a boy. I felt that unfairness acutely, the bitterness of having to swallow that this was just the way it was, an accepted condition. There’s been some evolution since. Some. As in how mothers parent, at least the mothers I know, who aren’t attributing to their sons an automatic elevation in importance because of their gender and who are consciously trying to raise sons differently, to be different from the Brett Kavanaughs of this world. Which gives me so much hope.
Rumpus: Yes, these stories visit girls (and women) grappling with what they hope for themselves versus what the world dictates, like shadows cast by the forest. And there are particular shadows between mothers and daughters, more often fraught than comforting here. I appreciated your observations of the subtle (and sometimes violent) way in which generations of women can thrash about trying to find one another in all this darkness, yet the pulse of a hope that it can be otherwise is also there.
Alford Pursell: I’m so glad that you feel that pulse. I like to think that readers can sense the possibilities for these characters beyond what may be delineated for them in the text. Actually, I rely on readers to co-create what can happen off the page with the prospects and chances these characters make and take. The darkness is there, a bewildered confusion. Shining a light on it is one thing to do.
Rumpus: You’ve also managed to shine a light on the oft debilitating expectations society places on men and boys. As you were assembling this collection, were you actively thinking of the political climate in which this book would be born?
Alford Pursell: The current political landscape, this dark morass, is one we’ve been moving toward for a long time, and to my mind, this book maps that. I was finishing up edits as Christine Blasey Ford testified against Kavanaugh and I’ve acknowledged her profound courage in my book. But when I’m first composing what later develops into a collection, I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t want to. I want the mystery of not knowing, with its promise of making discoveries. At a certain point I begin to sense what the concerns are in what I’ve written and give into them to continue the writing and revising and shaping.
Rumpus: The book is organized into sections, using quotes from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” as epigraphs for each. How did this fairy tale become an organizing mechanism for the book?
Alford Pursell: I don’t recall exactly when it came to me, but sometime after the stories were collected and I was beginning that culling process, deciding which ones fit and which ones didn’t, and which stories needed another revision or twelve to do what I thought they should do. My biggest concern in assembling the collection was to find or create a rhythm to move from a series of very short stories (or hybrids) to a comparatively long story and then on to another sequence of one-page stories. “The Snow Queen” had been in the back of my mind because I was actively thinking about fairy tales in which the girl has agency rather than having to be rescued by the boy. I loved that Gerta set out to rescue Kay, as metaphorically is so often the case in reality. As best as I can approximate the process, it came to me that since the story has echoes with my stories or vice versa, I could use lines from it to organize the book’s sections.
Rumpus: How much revision goes into one of your shorter pieces?
Alford Pursell: Sometimes I think I write more than is necessary. I want the readers to be making their own connections, in the spaces I leave for that. In the synaptic gaps, you might say. I could possibly leave larger and more frequent gaps. But how much subtraction is too much? That’s one of the questions that drives me in revision, and a short piece can go through many revisions seeking that answer, for one. I’m driven, too, by a compulsion for refinement in language (precision and concision) and in sound. Yet, I still want some mystery there in the pieces; when I’m reading, I have an aversion to stories that spell everything out.
Rumpus: You get it just right and that is felt most clearly in the way you stick your endings. Like the landing in a gymnast’s performance, where the viewer’s breath is hinging on the athlete’s breath, the reader feeling that similar kind of release. Do you often know where your stories are headed? Is your last line conceived early on?
Alford Pursell: I can have a vague sense of an ending that crystallizes as I’m writing, sometimes. On occasion there’s a sharp turn away from what I’d thought would end the piece that astonishes me with its sense of “rightness.” I love when that happens. It can be anxiety-provoking to just throw it all out on the page with no clear end in sight, to be in the state of okay, I’m evidently writing about, in the case of “A Girl Goes,” the losses girls experience in the woods where they necessarily have to go, let me find out what I think and feel about all this.
Rumpus: And is there a tell-tale, a sign a story offers up, that lets you know it is going to be a more traditional length or that it will rely on brevity?
Alford Pursell: That’s such a great question. It’s hard to answer because I don’t actually know know. I have a nebulous sense about a thing (a story, a hybrid, etc.) and I’ll go with that hunch. That is, the form seems to make itself known as I write into it. That’s not always successful. I have plenty of pieces that don’t yet seem to work and the reason may be that the form they took on or, rather, the form I imposed on them out of a lack of an intuition otherwise, isn’t the best one for them. Maybe they need to be something longer. Or shorter. Or some shape or structure altogether different.
Rumpus: I have always admired your literary citizenship and the community you’ve built with Why There Are Words reading series and now the WTAW Press. Who are the people that have inspired you in this way over the years?
Alford Pursell: When it comes to WTAW Press, an important mentor I turn to regularly is Martha Rhodes of Four Way Books. There’s never been a question I haven’t been able to ask Martha about publishing and she is a wealth of information, having been publishing for over twenty years. Her generosity and support is so important to me. I hope to be able to pay that forward. Unquestionably, my greatest source of inspiration has been Ellen Bryant Voigt, who pioneered the low-residency model of the MFA. Without sacrificing her own art-making. While raising and mothering children. She’s received a MacArthur, a Guggenheim for her poetry. Her books have been nominated for the Pulitzer and National Book Award and I don’t know what all. I was astonished by Headwaters. The effect of her creating the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, my being admitted into that program was transformational for me and for so many others, and all the while creating her own art. This essential quality is one that Martha shares, too, as she continues to publish gorgeous volumes of poetry, too.
Rumpus: It seems some writers are fueled by filling the well of others, while others can experience this kind of giving as creatively depleting. I assume you are of the fueled-by camp? Or is there a middle ground, a balance that you’ve had to strike?
Alford Pursell: I do seem to be one of those writers who find it essential to serve community. Though, neglecting my own writing self in service of others isn’t useful—that’s a sure path to disappointing myself. I have to be mindful not to go too far down the road of serving the writing of others first because it’s just so damn easy to do. Having the examples of Martha and Ellen helps. But like all things, the middle ground constantly fluctuates.
Rumpus: And who are the writers whose books you turn to again and again? Whose voices do you need in your ear?
Alford Pursell: Virginia Woolf, always and most likely forever. I cycle through Ruth Stone’s poetry fairly continuously. I can’t wait to see what Ramona Ausubel writes next. Ditto Eula Biss. The great thing about something like WTAW, there’s no end to the discoveries, both through the authors that pass through the eight branches of the reading series, and through the manuscripts authors send into the press, hopeful that I’ll publish them. So I’m very lucky to be able to constantly hear new voices.
Photograph of Peg Alford Pursell by Adrianne Mathiowetz.