Trying to See a Future: Talking with Beth Gilstrap

By

Beth Gilstrap’s second story collection, Deadheading, won the 2019 Red Hen Press Women’s Prose Award and publishes tomorrow. It includes stories Leesa Cross-Smith characterizes as “little gardens—the words blooming, the rain too.” While reading, I kept coming back to this blurb. These stories are deeply rooted in the lives of working-class women in the Carolinas, and they are powered by collisions of beauty and decay, joy and struggle. As characters grapple with the choices they’ve made, or failed to make, they engage with the physical world by sinking their hands into rich, fertile soil or sucking salt or sweetness from their fingers. This is a collection you can taste: chicken thighs and hot dogs, pancakes and okra. These characters have hands that work, that are scented by flowers, dough, and earth. These stories are, indeed, in full bloom—cultivated and wild, most often intertwined.

Gilstrap is also the author of I Am Barbarella: Stories (Twelve Winters Press, 2015) and No Man’s Wild Laura (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2016). Born and raised in the Charlotte area, she recently relocated to Louisville where she lives and writes in an ornery old shotgun house.

I was delighted to speak with Beth recently over Zoom about the new book, finding beauty on bridges, sifting flour, and rescuing sad rose bushes.

***

The Rumpus: We’re speaking in this anxious time, and one line that stood out to me as I was revisiting the collection comes from the narrator in “The Best Kind of Light,” who says, “I try to remember there’s nice things in the world.” What are the nice things that you’re currently trying to remember?

Beth Gilstrap: It’s tough to find the nice things right now, but I’ve had a lot of trauma in my life and it feels like I’ve been practicing for this moment, which is bizarre. It feels like I’ve been trained to exist in this. I’ve spent my whole life trying to be brave enough to live like normal, whatever that means. I’ve been dealing with anxiety since I was a child and was diagnosed with panic disorder when I was eighteen. So, that’s kind of always there, and I have over a decade of therapy under my belt. The refrain from each therapist I’ve had was, “There are still good things; you just have to try really hard to see them.”

The way I do that is to connect with nature. Take a daily walk. I’m really fortunate. When I rented this house about a year ago, I had no idea it was a mile away from the Ohio River. I’ve been walking the pedestrian bridge almost every day for a year now. That is where I find my good things. There’s death out there on the river, and tragedy, but there’s also life, birth. I tap into the cyclical nature of things and try to remind myself that nothing is permanent and that typically you’re going to come out of a terrible cycle. You’re going to come out of winter. You’re going to come out of all these horrific things.

I almost never end my walk without shedding some joy tears. It’s always something. It’s the first bloom you see in spring, it’s the first yellow on the gingko trees, the wind cooling you off fifty feet above the river when it’s supposed to be ninety-eight degrees today. Sixty goslings on a single hill. Children. You see a lot of kids and families up there, and when you’re alone, seeing that is a beautiful thing, and getting to be a part of it even with all this isolation.

Rumpus: That comes through in your writing. Another thing that struck me was “the desperate beauty” in “A Little Arrhythmic Blip” wherein your character Jolene builds a floral world on a metal fence and how if there’s no beauty to be found, we can create it.

The collection is called Deadheading, which is a way that we take something that’s naturally beautiful and make it even more beautiful by tricking it into putting out more blooms. Let’s talk about the title and how you see the creation of beauty or its cultivation in opposition to the despair that can run through our lives and these stories. How did you decide on “Deadheading” as the title story, and is the act of deadheading a metaphor for what the characters in the collection are doing?

Gilstrap: The day I finished the draft of “Deadheading,” which is connected to “Still Soft, Still Whole,” which are the last two stories, I had just come out of a week at a shack in the woods at the Sundress Academy for the Arts. I had an outhouse and no electricity, although I did have access to the farmhouse. I finished that draft, and I was like, okay, I’ve been in a shack in the woods for a week; I need to go into town. So, looking like I’d been in a shack in the woods for a week, I walked around the Knoxville farmers’ market and then went to a very fancy restaurant for brunch.

I hadn’t titled that last story yet, and I was thinking about my experience at Sundress and how important gardening has always been to me. My grandparents were born and raised in North Carolina during the Depression, and they were a big part of my upbringing because I grew up with a single mom. They had a lot of hardship, and my grandfather didn’t read, and they both worked at mills until the mills closed and then had to figure out other things to do, but they always kept a garden. They taught me that there’s peace there and that no matter how hard things are, you can cultivate beauty if you pay attention to the natural world.

Of course, as a little kid I didn’t know it, but they were teaching me how to take care of myself and how to take care of the world in a way that a lot of people don’t really learn. There are two places where my mind actually stops the anxious chatter that’s otherwise constant: the garden and the kitchen. When I’m cooking or gardening, I’m in the moment. I’m not thinking about all the terrible things that could, did, and will happen.

It’s like this rose bush that I got from the discount rack when it was past time for planting, when it was already hot. I think I got it for eight dollars, and it was a fifteen-gallon pot. It looked pretty miserable, and I thought, you match my mood. I see a lot of mirroring in nature, and to nurture something like that and to see it change gradually gives me hope for myself and for the people I care about who are so desperately wounded. There are a lot of unspoken things that I can express through food or gardening. It’s not a verbal communication.

I was in that restaurant, just a hot mess and really excited about my brunch. I think I had French toast with raspberries, very fancy in comparison to the peanut butter sandwiches I had been eating for a week. I went to Sundress with the sole purpose of finishing the first draft of the collection, and I was very emotional and didn’t know what to call the book. I was still in the middle of taking care of my mother-in-law, who had been sick for three years, so I had to write this book in stolen moments.

I was thinking about that scene where Layla has gone off to the woods again for peace, and she’s trying to see a future. And I was trying to see a future. I think that’s the ultimate metaphor, that even when something looks a mess and like it might not make it, you can come back from it. I needed to believe that at that moment because I couldn’t see a future, and that’s something I struggle with a lot. The title is my way of trying to be hopeful.

Rumpus: Nature functions that way across the entire collection. It is something that comes back and comes back and comes back, and there is comfort in that. You touched on food, too, which I also wanted to ask about. My taste buds were being activated constantly while reading Deadheading. Food plays a big role in so many of the stories, like “Tomorrow or Tomorrow” and the search for takeout. Or the way a hot dog kicks off a very troubled relationship in “Still Soft, Still Whole.” The sensory experience of food is an anchoring point but also an inciting incident in many of these stories. What does food mean to you?

Gilstrap: Again, I think it’s a way of me connecting with the present. It goes back to my roots and my culture. My grandma used to say that I’d been cooking since I had to stand on a chair to reach the counter. She would have me make my own little biscuit, which was of course much smaller than everybody else’s. My grandfather passed away in 2003 and my grandmother passed away in 2015, and a lot of these stories were written after my grandmother passed. For me, food is a way of connecting with her because that’s where I hear her voice in my head the strongest.

In the title story, there’s a pancake recipe, and I actually have that handwritten recipe framed on my kitchen wall; it was hers. She has a little note on it that says to sift the flour five times, and I always joked about that. I said nobody would sift the flour five times; I’ll sift it once. She would point her little finger at me and fuss and say, “I know you need to do it; it makes a difference.” I still don’t see how it makes a difference, so I’m in there laughing and arguing with her in my head when I make that recipe.

When things aren’t going well with writing, I tend to be in the kitchen more. It’s another creativity, which I find more instinctual and not as difficult as writing because I’ve been doing it longer. If I mess up in the kitchen, I know what happened there. If something goes wrong in my writing, I have no idea. Maybe eventually I’ll be there, where it’ll be more like muscle memory, but you have to face all of your demons when you’re writing, even with fiction. It’s not easy, and it can be very triggering. I feel peace when I’m in the kitchen, and if you mess it up, you just eat something else. The stakes are much lower.

Rumpus: A lot of your characters, like many of us, make life-altering decisions very quickly based on intuition. Then the story shows the ripple effects of those decisions. Those ripple effects are often coupled with the intuitive nature of cooking. These, for lack of a better word, domestic tasks were sometimes in opposition to, but also amplified by, the high-stakes scenarios that they were occurring within.

Gilstrap: I feel that, on and off the page, so I think it’s cool that that came through.

Rumpus: Like I said, with so many of the stories, I felt like I could taste them and I could smell them and I could hear them. In “Like Air, or Bread, or Hard Apple Candy,” “Grenada takes a big breath… and wonders if she’s taking in the last physical remnants of her long-dead relatives, a fragment of hair, a skin cell, some crumb of biscuit.”

Was the sensory saturation in these stories something that came to you intuitively, or is that something you worked to include in the revision process?

Gilstrap: I think it’s both. It depends a little on whether I’m writing a flash piece or a longer piece. Flash I tend to write in one sitting. I think part of that comes from using forms and constraints when I’m struggling for ideas. Usually if I can get an image—and I find a lot of images when I’m out walking around in the world—then I follow it. I find where that image came from a lot faster with flash than I do with short stories.

One of the stories, “For a Blaze of Sight,” took almost a year to write. When I’m working on a short story, I’m more focused on the character than anything. I’m trying to get their voice, but I’ve also got an image in mind. Sometimes it’s the inciting image and sometimes it’s at the end. It’s almost never in the middle. I’m trying to find how this image in my head happens.

As I’m editing, I do read for sense. This comes from the brilliant flash fiction writer, Sherrie Flick. I remember very clearly at my second MFA residency with her, she taught us to revise for each sense. Now I don’t do five revisions that way, but I do try to see if there is something that’s missing from the five senses and then incorporate it. As a reader, I look for that now. That’s a trick that usually gets me into the world much easier and quicker. I look for that as an editor, as well. If a piece has really great sensory details, I am in the world and swept up in it rather than asking questions.

Rumpus: So often, I felt like I was being ushered into a house. In “What Magic” you write, “foundations are cracked and the sides of the buildings we called home have already begun their inevitable descent.” I’m interested in how our built structures are also of the earth and what that means for the characters in your collection.

Gilstrap: I think there are a lot of things at play here when it comes to houses and decay. Part of it is the Southern Gothic tradition, which is both intuitive and cultivated because up until this past year, I spent my entire life in North and South Carolina. So that’s embedded. In the Southern Gothic tradition, houses become a metaphor for the South in general. There was such poverty post-Civil War and during Reconstruction, and then in the seventies when factories and textile mills start closing, just like the Rust Belt, you wind up with a ton of vacant buildings and houses. Charlotte is big on tearing everything down. Just tear it down, start over, and pretend like it never happened. In Louisville, there are a lot more older homes, and they tend to reinvent rather than tear down, and I like that. I like stuff with a story—shocker!

Another reason I pay attention to houses is because I studied interior design for like half a minute in the 1990s. So, I’ve got this tendency to look at houses and structures based on culture and storytelling, and then I actually studied things like architecture and textiles. There’s no way that I’ve ever used this other than  decorating my own house, so it was going to come out somewhere, I guess. It’s always part of the story. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t feel like it was me. Part of being a writer is, I think, to pay attention to those things, the sum of our experiences.

Rumpus: What are you paying attention to now? What’s animating your creative life?

Gilstrap: I started a flash novel about two years ago now, and I’m finding with this one, I go in spurts, writing on it until I hit a wall, and then I have to work on something else. The flash novel takes place in a mill town, which has reinvented itself as a holiday destination. The people who live there don’t really care for it. Or at least the ones that I’m writing about are not really into the whole Christmas thing, but it’s how their town survives. It’s based on this town that’s about an hour away from Charlotte, called McConville, so I’ve done a lot of research on that town and on the mills in the area.

I’ve also been paying attention to being in a new place. I’ve always loved travel as part of the writing process because that novel experience shifts your brain to pay attention to things that you normally take for granted. Everything here in Louisville is new to me, so I’m just soaking everything up. The river has been a big influence, so whatever I’m doing, the river’s going to be in it. And what little bit I’ve gotten to talk to strangers. A lot of writers tend to attract strangers who inexplicably tell you things. It’s bizarre. Someone the other day in a checkout line was telling me her experience as a veteran and how she had PTSD and how she chose this job because no one was trying to kill her. And I just stand there going, I can’t believe you’re telling me this. Yeah, something about a writerly face, I guess. Anytime that happens, I’m grateful. And I have some interesting neighbors. They have no idea they live next-door to a writer. Sorry! Maybe they’ll find out someday when they read about themselves. Everything’s new right now. I’m just trying to get a pulse on this place. The house I live in is about a hundred years old, and it’s not mine, I rent it, but it’s got stories for sure.

***

Photograph of Beth Gilstrap by Beth Gilstrap.


Kate Finegan is editor-in-chief of Longleaf Review, novel/novella editor for Split/Lip Press, and author of the chapbooks Ablaze (Sonder Press, 2020) and The Size of Texas (Penrose Press, 2018). She lives in Toronto. Find her at http://katefinegan.ink and on Twitter at @kehfinegan. More from this author →