The Thursday Agitation: Amelia Gray

Reading AM/PM, the first collection of short stories from Austin’s Amelia Gray, one can’t help but be impressed: across a series of flash fiction pieces, Gray evokes wonder and dread; romanticism and despair. And slowly, as you make your way through AM/PM‘s stories, patterns begin to emerge as characters recur and situations evolve — a much more resonant emotional experience than one might expect from flash fiction. Gray’s longer work is equally distinctive; a collection of that, Museum of the Weird, is due out next year on FC2. Both collections, along with her work as host of the Five Things reading series in Austin, were among our topics of discussion.

[Previous interviews in this series can be found here.]

First and foremost, congratulations on winning FC2′s short story collection contest. What attracted you to FC2, and how do the stories in Museum of the Weird differ from those in AM/PM?
I’ve been lucky to work with two presses that I love and are doing something innovative. Featherproof has this pair of guys with the ideal mindset in considering content and form. Then there’s FC2, who have a history, and they anticipated and are fighting a lot of the problems you see with experimental fiction in the print industry. It seems like it’s hard to survive too many years in print if you’re unwilling to change your mission statement, and FC2 beat the odds in that sense. I think Featherproof will too, because they’re real smart guys and they have a good plan.

The stories in Museum of the Weird are longer, which gives me a chance to stick around with characters for a while. I screw around with form a little as well; there’s a play, some letters back and forth, and a couple lists. The subject matter is a little hard to describe in fifteen words or less. My girl at the salon asked me what the stories were about and I told her that one is about a man married to a bag of frozen fish.  She was sort of quiet after that.

Do you approach writing flash fiction differently from writing longer stories?
Unless I’m trying to write in a very specific form, the goal is to tell the story in as small a space as possible. I just wrote a story that where I took lines of an old newspaper article and wrote a little vignette after every line. I knew that was going to be longer because I had a certain number of lines I wanted to use. I can usually tell where 600 words is, and if a story is still plugging away when I hit around that mark, I usually have to re-figure the arc and start thinking about it differently. Whenever I try to force myself into a bigger arc for the sake of the word count it ends up being a huge disaster.

If memory serves, you recently wrote about teaching a class on flash fiction — were most of the students there coming from a fiction-writing background, or looking at flash fiction as an entirely different form?
This was a high school class taught by my friend Jack, and I came and talked to them for two class periods. They were learning about flash fiction that week and Jack had given them some really excellent stories to look at for reference; “Rose Period” by Jimmy Chen, “Leak” by Claudia Smith, “The Chair” by Richard Garcia. Lucky kids to be reading such good stuff. Anyway, the idea of flash was totally new to them but they were really into it. Flash fiction is a lot of fun to teach to casual readers.

In AM/PM, certain characters begin to recur as the book proceeds — did you know from the outset that you would be returning to these characters periodically?
Not at all; in fact, my initial goal was to write a different character for every story. The first draft had a lot of nameless characters because of that, and they mysteriously started sharing a lot of similar plotlines, and then I realized I was writing about the same damn people over and over again. So I figured it out and gave them names and that took about a year and a half.

How did the Five Things series come about? Do you find that your involvement in it has affected your writing (or your perspective on writing) at all?
As with most things I do, it started with me bitching; this time, about how there aren’t a ton of readings in Austin. There are just too many good writers hiding in their homes instead of coming out and having drinks and making asses out of themselves, which is what writers should be doing all the time. I was inspired by the great reading and art events happening in Chicago, namely The Dollar Store, Quickies, and the Show ‘n Tell Show. Featherproof is behind some of this stuff and they lied to me and said that it’s not that much work to put on a show, and I believed them and here I am.

Hosting the show keeps me thinking about what works on paper and what works in front of a crowd. A crowd will always push you towards the strange side of a story, and I think the strange side is a good place to be.

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