Ashley Kunsa’s fiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, and her critical work has been published in the Journal of Modern Literature and Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction. She received the 2011 A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Orlando Prize for flash fiction and in 2009 was named a finalist for Narrative magazine’s Thirty Below contest. A 2009 graduate of Penn State’s Master of Fine Arts program, Ashley is currently a doctoral candidate in English literature at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. She lives with her husband and son outside the city, not far from where she grew up.
Her fiction, "The Physics of Grief," appears in the 2014 edition of the Roanoke Review. Stephanie Spector speaks with Ashley below.
It’s been almost a year since we published The Physics of Grief in the Review. What have you been up to since then?
Mostly fighting a toddler to take a bath and eat something other than broccoli, applesauce, and toast. Okay, but seriously, I’ve spent a lot of 2014 working on my dissertation, which looks at Iraq War fiction written by American authors—books like Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and David Abrams’s Fobbit. The project puts these works into conversation with official-media discourse about the war, so I’ve been reading a lot of newspaper articles from early in the century, presidential speeches, media theory, and the like. And writing, writing, writing my chapters.
But I’ve also been writing fiction in the margins of my time, and some poetry here and there. I had two war- and motherhood-related poems come out in the fall of 2014 over at the Lehigh Valley Vanguard, and I recently got a story accepted by Hot Metal Bridge, all of which is pretty exciting. I’ve been working on new pieces, mostly flash, some a little longer, and sending stuff out when I get the time, which unfortunately isn’t often enough!
Strangely though, for as busy as I’ve been recently—raising a child, working on the mega-project that is a dissertation, teaching fiction to high schoolers this past summer, attending professional conferences, etc.,—I’m currently being the most productive creative-wise that I’ve been in the past five years. I think it may be that I’m finally getting my energy and mojo back post-MFA, or at least I hope that’s what’s happening. I’ve heard from a lot of MFA grads that it’s common to get burned out after two or three years of non-stop writing workshops (my program was three), that it can take years to get back into the groove, to find that same pleasure and rhythm in writing again. I graduated in 2009, and it’s only within the past year/year and a half that I can really say I’m “feeling” it again. And a great feeling it is.
What inspired you to write the characters in The Physics of Grief?
The dog rescuer was based on a real person who a friend of mine interacted with when she took her beagle to a dog park in State College, PA, where I was getting my MFA at the time I started the story. The idea of this neb nose (as we in southwestern PA call someone who pries into your business) who made her feel totally inadequate, even though she wasn’t doing anything wrong, just sort of irked me. And he really did call himself the “dog rescuer.” The other characters came about the way many of my characters do—through the sound of a voice in my head (as with the narrator) or turns of phrase and little details (whether real or imagined) that do a good deal of characterizing work. I’m always carrying on and on with my fiction students about significant detail, and I’m sure they get sick of listening to me, but it’s true how much the right detail can convey. I went with the line about the professor’s eggplant shirt being something a wife would pick out because I think that one detail paints both his and the narrator’s characters in very telling ways (or at least I hope it does!).
In short fiction, there is little room with which to work to drive plot and develop character. Yet you end each scene in The Physics of Grief with great blips of phrase that build tension and render sympathy for your protagonist. “A body in motion will remain in motion, I tell a lecture hall of freshmen. But those in the back are a step ahead: a body asleep remains oblivious.” So, uh, how do you do that? In all seriousness. . .what advice would you give to those writing short fiction to keep the story both touching and concise?
This question makes me laugh. It ties in, in a lot of ways, to my answer for the previous question about significant detail. It makes me laugh because it was a long road getting here. When I first went to college and was taking introductory fiction classes—the kind where most of my students are writing 7 or 8 page stories and I have to drag that much out of them—I was turning in these sprawling 25–30 page pieces that probably made my teachers want to cry or pound the wall. These stories took the phrase “everything but the kitchen sink” to a new level (and they probably included a literal kitchen sink as well). On my first date with my husband, when I was a second semester freshman, I gave him one such piece to read and he crossed out a full 10 pages of material by the time he was done with it. (Hard to imagine I agreed to a second date, now that I think of it….)
What I had to learn over time (and it took lots of time—years), was that less really can be more. In short fiction, that’s the rule of the game. Surprisingly enough, all these years later, it’s a rule I’ve come to embrace and love and find challenging and thrilling. Though if you’d have told me that a dozen years ago, I’d have looked at you like you were an especially cruel kind of liar!
Getting back to significant detail though: you can write ‘em all down, sure, but you can’t keep ‘em all. And you don’t want to. You need to be a picker and a chooser, a shaper and a crafter. You need to decide what is best for your story, best for your reader. What’s most true to the vision you have for your characters, your emotional arc, your plot. More often than not, it’s not all five ways of describing the barista’s hair or both similes about the weather.
So I guess my advice is don’t be afraid of getting it all out onto the page—all 10 or 30 or 50 pages of it—but then you have to be prepared to go at it mercilessly and with a purposeful eye. One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever got was from a teacher who said, during my senior year in college, that whatever your favorite line, whatever phrase you’re holding onto as most dear, that’s exactly the one you need to cut because that’s the one that’s holding you back. At the time, it sounded like blasphemy to me (I’ll admit, it still sort of does), and I didn’t listen to her fifteen years ago; but in the time since then, I’ve done it again and again, and every time it has set my story free in a way I couldn’t have otherwise imagined.
Remember: you don’t ever need to get rid of anything, as in delete it forever. I keep a file for almost every one of my stories entitled “Excerpts,” followed by the story title. All your beloved language and catchy lines and smart metaphors will be safe in such a file. Computers are wonderful like that. Wouldn’t want to write (or live) without them. But once a piece goes out into the world, you only have one line to get it right, with every single line you write. Make that line count, every single time. And that means trimming every single excess sentence, every excess word and mark of punctuation.
Your essays on Cormac McCarthy and Junot Díaz were published in the Journal of Modern Literature and Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction. What characterizes today’s contemporary fiction? Do you think your writing fits under this category?
This is a hard question because “contemporary fiction,” even “contemporary American fiction,” is such a huge category, and because novels and short fiction are often difficult to treat as one. People write entire books on this subject! If we’re talking really contemporary—stuff written since the turn of the twenty-first century—I will say that I think we are seeing a strong commitment to storytelling, more so than thirty or forty years ago. There’s still a good bit of experimentation and there are elements of textual difficulty that characterized fiction during the heyday of postmodernism, but the focus in a lot of today’s fiction seems to be as much on telling a good story as it is on form, as much on developing character as on drawing attention to the means by which we come to know those characters. There are exceptions to this, of course, but I’m painting in broad strokes. Contemporary fiction is a smart fiction, and it’s self-conscious, though not excessively so; there’s an awareness of politics and of history, both in the classic sense and literary; but it also really wants to be readable, which is something that I, for one, am all for.
Take, for instance, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a 2012 finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, which I mentioned above. This is a very “textual” novel, very self-conscious and intelligent, and it’s clearly situating itself in a tradition of American war literature. But it’s also extremely readable and engaging, it makes you want to read it. You don’t want to put this book down, and I’m not just saying this because I study war fiction, because Fountain’s novel is an atypical sort of war book—it takes place at an NFL stadium and there’s almost no battle action. This novel’s had great success, and Ang Lee, who did the Life of Pi film, is set to direct a movie adaptation in the next year or so. Could this book have done so well twenty years ago? I doubt it. Thirty-five? No way.
As for whether my own work fits into this category, I’m going to pull one of those writerly moves and say I don’t like to categorize my own writing. I will say, however, that, first and foremost, I’m concerned with language, because language is and always has been where/how story is born for me. It’s where I find voice, character, the movement of plot. I love language—sound, rhythm, metaphor, and so on—but I like language with a purpose, both in what I read and what I write. I’ve never liked reading things that feel like “language games,” so I’ve never written things like that. I want to read a good story, period—something that moves me on an emotional level and something that makes me think, both about my life and about someone else’s or the world at large or whatever. And that’s what I try to write as well.
Do you have any writing rituals or habits?
Definitely. About half of the time I spend “writing” any story I actually spend researching on the internet. There are so many things, places, characteristics, etc., that pique my interest but that I don’t know enough about to reliably work with, and so internet research has become a crucial part of my writing routine. I’m a cat person and know next to nothing about science, for example, so for “Physics” I researched Newton’s laws of motion, Schrödinger’s cat, astronomy, and, well, dogs, as silly as that may sound. And all this research doesn’t just help me to get information “right”; it leads me to more ideas and inspiration and helps me to create the sort of layering of symbol and language that I strive for in my work.
Another thing that could be considered a habit is my revising process. I don’t write a draft the way I imagine lots of people do—sit down and crank it out; read it over/think on it, then revise; repeat, repeat, done. If only! I have this sort of crazy-making, intensive, recursive writing process, where every sentence, sometimes every word, undergoes intense scrutiny, getting reworked 5, 10, 27 times before it’s part of what I consider a “draft.” And none of it’s linear. I’m working on a paragraph on page two, then page four, then it’s back to the paragraph on page two, and now I’ve thought of something for the ending, and in the midst of that I’ve come up with a metaphor that just might work somewhere near the beginning….
It might be one of the slowest, most painstaking writing processes I can imagine (and it is not good for churning out a lot of material in a short period of time), and it’s been criticized by any number of writers, but I’ve been writing stories in this way probably since about middle school, and despite attempts at revising my process, this is just the writer I am. At this point, I’ve accepted it.
What made you decide to pursue an MFA?
Law school! I went immediately after college for pretty much every reason but the right one, which I imagine is something like “the desire to practice law.” I lasted three months. Honestly, I’m surprised I stayed that long—the very first day, I called my husband crying, telling him how I hated it already. He said, “Quit. Just leave,” but I didn’t, because I didn’t want to be “a quitter.” But spending every day for three months contemplating the prospect of 30+ years doing something I knew in my bones would not fulfill me, well, that made me desperate to pursue the thing I loved, which was writing.
An MFA provided me with an opportunity to pursue that love in a way that was structured and felt responsible (can you hear my middle-class Protestant upbringing chiming in here?!) because I could gain experience teaching and eke out some kind of a living at the same time (though MFA stipends aren’t going to make you rich by any means). I come from a family of public school teachers, and I always thought I would enjoy and be good at teaching writing, so I looked at the MFA as a chance to also see if that was a direction my career might be headed in. And, indeed, teaching has proven to be a really rewarding aspect of pursuing higher education in English.
What question have you always wanted to be asked as a writer?
Another hard one. I’d have to go with, “What’s the biggest goal you hope to accomplish with your writing?” And I’m going to answer it, too, because it’s no fun to get asked The Question but not answer it!
I write for a lot of reasons—because language moves me in such a way that I feel like I have to, because I love the challenge of finding the perfect way of expressing myself, and on and on—but when I think of sending a story out into the world and what I most hope it achieves, I’d have to say that I hope it moves someone, even just one person, to want to write something herself (or himself, of course). A beautiful line or paragraph, a gripping story. Something that matters to her, something she’s invested in and pours her effort into—and something she, too, would want to share with the world.
That’s what the best writing, my favorite writing, does for me. It makes me stop at the end of the story, tell laundry it has to wait, turn my phone to silent, forget the hunger grumbling in my belly, open up my laptop, and start piecing together words of my own. My favorite writing makes it so that I can’t not write. Sometimes it’s only a sentence, sometimes it’s a page, and sometimes it’s an idea for a whole story that unfolds over the course of weeks or months. The best stories move me toward my own stories, they make me want to write, to do that. And that’s my hope for my own work: that it will make someone feel and say, “I want to do that.”