In an effort to keep their work “timeless,” many writers avoid including details like social media or evolving technology in their fiction. Melissa Ragsly embraces these elements throughout her debut collection, We Know This Will All Disappear, while also tackling universal themes like intimacy, loneliness, longing, and betrayal in a way that will clearly endure beyond the current cultural moment. Similarly, the multifaceted power of pop culture as an escape from trauma or coping mechanism for it, as an expression of self, and as a language that bonds us to others is evident throughout the book.
Ragsly’s debut collection of short fiction is out now from PANK Books. Author Gabino Iglesias says that these stories are “dirty, brilliant, painfully human, fast, and strangely sensual. They were pulled from somewhere between a drunken phone call and a half-forgotten childhood dream.” Melissa’s work has appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best Small Fictions, Iowa Review, Hobart, and other journals, and she is currently working on a novel. She lives in the Hudson Valley and is Director of Regional Chapters for the Authors Guild.
In discussing this brilliant book, we talked about Melissa’s approach to incorporating timely concerns in her work as well as the more overarching concerns of what it means to be human, and more specifically, a woman, navigating various social spaces.
The Rumpus: Your stories do not shy away from the ubiquitous role that modern technology plays in our daily lives. What are your thoughts on the ease with which you place your stories in our current moment while still making your characters and their situations feel like they could exist in any era?
Melissa Ragsly: I’ve always responded to work that puts me in a specific place. I think of setting as something more all-encompassing than a location—I think of it as anything external to the character. What’s the camera seeing if there was a camera? Give me a lot outside a character’s skin as a way to sharpen how I see their interior lives. Tell me what movie they saw, how they waste their time, because all that adds up to the equation of what they are trying to fix. It doesn’t make it feel dated; it makes it feel authentic to when the story is happening. The feelings and themes and the emotions are what’s timeless, and everything external to that, the more detailed we can be, the better.
As far as modern technology? It’s fundamentally changed how we communicate and with ease comes the difficulty. Just because you can look up someone from your past doesn’t mean you should. But what is stopping you? I mean maybe you really should, because you learn something from the disappointment! We have more chances daily for all of these little crises that play out in our own head than we ever had. That is the stuff of story that I respond to. Quiet catastrophes. Sometimes made loud and sometimes silenced altogether.
Rumpus: I love this notion of capturing everything that is external to the characters in crafting an all-encompassing “setting” and that you ask yourself “what does the camera see?” Do you envision your stories in terms of film or how they would be played out as watched on screen and not just read as words on paper?
Ragsly: I studied screenwriting, that’s what my degrees are in, and if I honestly look at the art I’ve consumed, I (and maybe most writers) have probably watched more films than I’ve read books. But even if you take that out of the way, words on a page are never just words on a page. Your mind gives them shape without even trying to, but that’s different than the passivity of watching someone else’s interpretation of those words. When you read prose, don’t you see it playing out in some way in your head? Don’t you cast it and figure out what you see and how the characters move? That’s kind of the beauty of it.
I feel like that’s one of the ways we get to interact with writing; it adds another layer of meaning to take the work of another’s imagination and then imagine it yourself. It actually feels kind of powerful to do that. Like subconsciously communicating with the author. It’s a more playful way of approaching marginalia. I love making notes in any book I read and feel like it’s having a conversation with an object. Maybe imagining a story as film in your head is taking it to the next level; it’s more like making out with a story. Feel free to make out with my stories.
Rumpus: Will do! Reading your stories is an intimate experience, as we’re treated to such close perspectives, including the thoughts people are most ashamed of and yet are completely human for having. And yes, I agree with you that I can’t read prose without images and sound accompanying the words in my head. Your stories come alive for me from that camera-lens style and attention to detail.
Ragsly: Thank you!
Rumpus: Like technology, pop culture is also laced in gracefully throughout the collection without ever feeling forced. I’d say it’s the opposite of feeling forced, in that the stories would lose something crucial to what they are without these references. I think of your work as having a sort of rocker edge or flair to its personality. It’s one of the ways I can identify a Melissa Ragsly story! Can you speak to how you make space for pop culture to fit so naturally in your writing?
Ragsly: I don’t consciously think of making space for it. It’s just part of my language. Pop culture was a touchstone in what felt to me like a very traumatic upbringing. I didn’t know that I was experiencing something traumatic at the time. I just know I didn’t feel comfortable, or even real. The comfort I found in television was so warm that it just became part of me. It was a teacher. Especially things like late night talk shows, when the later you’d stay up, the more filled with the weird they’d be.
Because so much of pop culture is big and bright, people might think that’s the whole of what it is. But it’s so often a commentary on culture, whether or not it means to be. Like in the story “Mannequin,” in the collection. Two girls listen to this Guns N’ Roses song—basically it’s a song where they recorded a woman orgasming. But the song means a lot to these girls, because they experience how they can both be objectified, and they don’t really know what to do with that yet. The song becomes a common language for them even if they are not necessarily celebrating the message in it.
When I’m writing a character that is repressing something or doesn’t quite understand how to deal with the feelings they have, it seems natural that they would be seeking comfort in something bigger and brighter than themselves, and that they’d try to find themselves inside of it. Pop culture is a religion for people that don’t believe in God.
Rumpus: You mentioned your own past, and the role pop culture played in it. More generally, do you see yourself in any of the characters in the book? Or do they feel to you more like a pure invention of the imagination? As women, our fiction is so much more often assumed to be autobiographical, which can be frustrating, and yet at the same time we shouldn’t feel ashamed when who we are is infused into or somewhat inseparable from our writing. So I’m just curious about your thoughts on this. I’m thinking of the protagonist of “Patti Smith” now, as one example.
Ragsly: I wrote them so I’m in them, but that doesn’t mean they are autobiographical or autofiction. There are two pieces that I would consider creative nonfiction and those are “That Motherfucker,” about an ectopic pregnancy, and “Present Tense,” about my karaoke friend that suddenly passed away. The other pieces are fiction and there are things that as a writer you try to process and situations which mirror my experiences and feelings but that’s like the seasoning. I am the salt; the stories are the food.
You mentioned “Patti Smith” as a specific example and I can say there are many details in the story that are from my life. I grew up in Smithtown, like the character. My house was filled with medical supplies, as hers is. But that character, no, that’s not me. I find the act of writing with the intent to write about myself is almost impossible, but removing myself completely is an impossibility as well.
Rumpus: The title of the collection is so beautiful, but the poetry of it lies in a certain sadness it evokes. How did you arrive at We Know This Will All Disappear? Do you think the transience of life makes our many emotional goals and struggles sort of futile in the grand picture or all the more to be cherished and revered? Is this something with which you mean for your characters to grapple?
Ragsly: I had no idea what to name this book. I started looking through the collection for phrases straight from the text but then I had that horrible feeling like when you’re watching a movie and they say the title of the movie in the dialogue and you just sort of cringe. So I thought more thematically about what these stories meant together. They all felt to me like they were dealing with some sort of loss or grief, but not necessarily death. Actually, I don’t think there’s much death at all. It’s grief from life. And the name just popped into my head. And I think it works because it is about all the things in life we lose that leaves a shape we have to fill, and the inverse, meaning all the pain or discomfort we feel that will also go away. It’s kind of hopeful and tragic at the same time. And it felt right to me that it was the collective acknowledging all this as truth. It’s not just that things will change, things will go away, but that we know this as truth internally, even if we don’t live our day-to-day lives acknowledging this.
Rumpus: Yes! Grief from life. We don’t talk about this enough, how much of our grief comes from the daily act and motions of living but how it’s only socially acceptable as a response to death and loss. If that. As we wrap up our conversation, can you share a bit more about this idea of the shapes left to fill after loss and how that functions as a hopeful aspect in your short fiction? Do any of the stories in the collection particularly encapsulate that idea more than others?
Ragsly: I would not think of my stories as hopeful in a traditional sense at all, but if you consider the act of trying to fill that void as hopeful, then perhaps they are in spirit, if not in tone. Out of all the stories, strangely, the one I think of as most hopeful is “Bio Baby,” which is the very last story in the collection. It focuses on an advertisement a woman is forced to see before getting an abortion. It’s set in a not-too-distant future and is the closest to sci-fi I think I will ever get. The ad is for a pouch that you can grow your child in outside your body and let them grow all the way until they are fully grown. I think the story tries to discuss the idea that motherhood doesn’t have to be this thing that keeps you from having the life you want to have. It certainly binds you in ways you have no control over but there is an adaptability that we’re capable of. And one of the last things the protagonist does is smell a juice a nurse has brought in for her; it’s described as “something that had lived in the dark and brightened itself with vitamins.” It’s about adapting, and adapting is sometimes the only thing we can do.
Photograph of Melissa Ragsly courtesy of Melissa Ragsly.