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Peg Alford Pursell

Peg Alford Pursell is the author of A GIRL GOES INTO THE FOREST, (Dzanc Books, July 2019), and of SHOW HER A FLOWER, A BIRD, A SHADOW, the 2017 Indies Book of the Year for Literary Fiction. Her work has been published in many journals and anthologies, and her microfiction, flash fiction, and hybrid prose have been nominated for Best Small Microfictions and Pushcart Prizes. She is the founder and director of WTAW Press, a nonprofit publisher of literary books, and of Why There Are Words, the national literary reading series. She is a member of the SF Writers Grotto. www.pegalfordpursell.com

Blurbs

“In these wistful, expansive stories, Peg Alford Pursell holds up a mirror to our lives and relationships. The stories excavate the lives of her narrators with honesty and clear, luminous prose. They are mysterious in the way the best fiction is―their truths echoing long after you turn the page.”

– Karen E. Bender, National Book Award finalist and author of Refund

"The stories in A GIRL GOES INTO THE FOREST are as beautiful and fine as a string of pearls and as complex as a thousand-piece puzzle. Each one is like a doorway through which we glimpse an entire universe."

– Ramona Ausubel, author of Awayland and Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty

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A Girl Goes Into the Forest

Language and Laughter: Two Writers in Conversation

09/24/19

Peg Alford Pursell and Nancy Au first met at the College of Marin (in Northern California) over nine years ago, when Nancy enrolled in her first writing class, a flash fiction class taught by Peg. Deeply inspired by Peg’s teaching, Nancy began attending North Bay Writers, a writing workshop Peg founded and facilitated in Sausalito. During this time, Peg also founded the award-winning literary reading series Why There Are Words (which since has become a celebrated national series and also inspired Peg’s founding and directing WTAW Press, a nonprofit independent publisher of books). Peg could see that not only was Nancy an original and talented writer, she was also interested in literary community building, and asked Nancy to become in involved with the series. Nancy began interning for WTAW in its second year. Nancy went on to earn her MFA from San Francisco State University, where she teaches creative writing. She is also an instructor at California State University Stanislaus and, in the summers, she teaches creative writing to biology majors! Nancy co-founded The Escapery, a collective of teachers who are dedicated to diversity, and to writing and art as a form of resistance. Of all the writing workshops Peg has attended in her lifetime, one of her favorites, one of the best was led by Nancy at The Escapery.

Peg Alford Pursell is the author of A Girl Goes into the Forest, just released July 16, by Dzanc Books. She is also the author of Show Her a Flower, A Bird, A Shadow, the 2017 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year for Literary Fiction

Nancy Au is the author of the debut story collection Spider Love Song and Other Stories, forthcoming from Acre Books in September. Of the book, Peg wrote: “Foxes, turtles, ducks, oysters, fish, badgers, beetles, damselflies, bees: all manner of creatures scratch, swim, thrum, and shimmer through these tender and fantastic stories. Characters struggle with the entanglements of the living and the dead, like the ‘spiders’ webs [that] can wind around anything that doesn’t pay attention,’ while they long to be out in the world that both compels and terrifies. I was spellbound by Au’s unique vision and language that pay attention to the many wild, rich worlds that hold us.”

The following conversation between the two writers took place long distance while they were traveling, Peg promoting her new book, and Nancy taking her creative writing/biology major students on a week-long camping field trip on Mt. Hamilton.

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NANCY AU: I think about the generative Tzara’s Hat exercises that we did in North Bay Writers Workshop when you taught me to draw inspiration by pulling a word from a pile, and digging into stories utilizing that word or the image it evoked. This is still something that I do on a regular basis, both for my own writing and in my workshops!

Note: The Tzara’s Hat exercise derives from Tristan Tzara, who, during a Dadaist rally in the 1920s, offered to create a work on the spot by pulling words at random from a hat.

PEG ALFORD PURSELL: Not everyone enjoys exercises when it comes to writing, so it makes me especially happy that you do, too. Doing something like “Tzara’s Hat” can make generating new work feel playful, and that sort of approach is really helpful if one is experiencing anxiety about getting something down on the page. It’s interesting that creative anxiety is thought to be a crucial step of the creative process: the anxiety builds until the creator begins to make something, relieving that pressure. A kind of necessary evil, it seems. But some can find that anxiety intolerable. An exercise, a game can help a writer out of their own way.

I would love to know if any of the stories in Spider Love Song and Other Stories had their genesis in this Tzara’s Hat method. And if not, how did you begin your stories?

NA: For SLS, I loved using “Tzara’s Hat,” which helped me to begin writing both stories, “The Unfed” and “Mom’s Desert.” I also experimented with different poetic constraints, such as variations of abecedarian exercises and, my favorite, using word cut-ups (with science textbooks, bird field books, recipe books, books about mammals, etc.) The cut-ups helped me to generate material for dialogues between characters, to use words that are not part of my everyday vocabulary, to find unique word pairings, and to use words in strange and new ways. I also used ekphrasis exercises. At museums, while studying the art, I wrote in my notebook using words to describe what I saw. Ekphrasis helped me to envision colors, settings and composition, textures, lighting, clothing, facial expressions, physical movements, and gestures for my characters.

I love your description of the playfulness of writing exercises, and how this can alleviate a writer’s anxiety. I carry a lot of anxiety, both within my writing/professional life and within my everyday life, and I often struggle with feeling confident about finding my words, using words, even in the context of just speaking with others …. With exercises, like cut-ups, it helps me to feel like words don’t have to be so serious, that language can be malleable and forgiving and funny. I think this is the reason why the writing exercises that you taught me at North Bay Writing Workshop have been so invaluable and inspiring and generative for me.

I want to talk about A Girl Goes into the Forest. In the story “Iguana,” there is a moment that took my breath away, when the protagonist “lifted her face to the sky. She wanted rain to mist her face, wash down her neck, thrum on her throat. Water she would wipe away.” This moment, like so many impossibly beautiful and heartbreaking moments throughout AGGITF, feels like we are witnessing a person’s dreams, in the way that a person wakes with their heart still pounding, the scents and tastes so real they keep their eyes squeezed shut, afraid to lose the dream.

I was heartbroken by the intensity of the character’s desire to reach her daughter, to be seen, heard, to hear her daughter speak before disappearing into the van. I wanted the dreams, these stories, each one, to go on forever. I believe that this intensity, the hyper-realistic, fully immersed, fully felt dreams, are what makes flash so magical. In a related sense, I wonder if there a catalyst/impetus for your book? Was it a vision? A dream? An image?

PAP: I need to make up an exciting story about how this collection came into being! If I were to do that, I’d say I’d had a sort of vision, one that came to me in a dream in the middle of the afternoon while I was in a liminal state, perhaps lying on my back in a meadow surrounded by buzzing bees and nattering squirrels, excited songbirds, catfish jumping in a nearby stream, while the cumulus clouds scuttling overhead formed the catalytic images. But the reality is, I almost never have any idea what I’m setting out to write. I plunge in, going with some impetus or another, most often the sound of a phrase that came from who knows where. I write early in the morning and often wake with words in my head that I need to set down on the page. Sonics are important to me, and in revision I’m careful about preserving and building upon the sounds of language.

A related question for you, Nancy, about revision: Throughout your stories certain motifs appear and I’m curious about whether they appeared organically in the individual stories, or if it was a matter of revisiting the stories after they were collected and then injecting the motifs into them—or a combination? For example, all the creatures in your book! Have you compiled a list of all the animals that show up in your stories? “The Fox Spirit” contains, besides foxes, a woodpecker, beetles, an orange tiger, hoary goats, dying fish, just to name a few. Can you talk about the significance of the animal world in this book?

NA: I love that you ask this because I love how in AGGITF, you dove so beautifully into the natural world, the “arched sky... so blue,” the “closer to earth darkness churned like sea reeds,” the excitement of animals lurking ... in the surrounding darkness.” Each piece in the collection reminds your reader that this entire world and our experiences through it is a wilderness. A wilderness surrounds the teenage daughter who travels alone across the country to live with her father, and another daughter when she secretly marries and proclaims that she is moving to Chile to raise horses with her new husband. There is a deep and beautiful wilderness within the protagonists themselves, within the complexities of parenthood, of daughterhood, of love, of marriage, of separation.

With my use of the natural world in SLS and for much of my writing, I am inspired by my husband who is an educator and a biologist who deeply loves the insects that he studies. I often think about the time when he and I were on a hike, and he suddenly shouted out, terrified, “Watch out!” to a mayfly just as it was eaten by a dragonfly in midair. I know that he loves dragonflies just as much as he loves mayflies, and I always imagine the turmoil he must have felt in this moment, rooting for one bug who has captured another bug as its meal, and simultaneously wanting to save the bug from being eaten. I think about the tenderness, the awe, and concern. And, the science! I’m a science lover (aka a science nerd without a science degree), and I love to read about birds and animals and insects. I use my fiction writing as an excuse to spend hours wiggling my way down the endless Wikipedia informational wormhole, to learn about anything ranging from the mating habits of lions, or the flight patterns of damselflies, or the origins of television static.

One of the guiding principles that I’ve lived by, with regard to publishing as a short story writer, was something that you taught me early on: write stories, publish stories, work on building a collection this way. Was this something that you did for AGGITF? Was AGGITF always envisioned as a story collection? Or were the individual stories written over time, and a theme began to show up?

PAP: Many of the stories were written over time. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t usually know what I’m creating, and that’s particularly true about a book, a collection. I wouldn’t have it any other way! The mystery is essential. It takes time and stories before I can discover what my obsessions are about, what they may be adding up to. Once I have an idea, more stories flow, though, in the end, I will cut quite a few that don’t enhance the overall collection. Also, once I have a sense of the overall project, I’ll realize that there are other stories, stories written earlier that already held the seeds, and with my eye and ear trained on them through the new focus, I’ll look into how I might tend to them in such a way that they can take their place in the collection. I really love that process of investigation and discovery and of culling and assembling.

Will you talk about your process in writing your book? Many of the stories have been published individually, too. Did you have a larger idea about writing this particular book before writing the stories? And then set out to publish each? Or did you assemble that book after you felt you had enough stories to form a collection? How did you develop such a wonderful cohesion between these stories?

NA: I love that your process involves this wonderful mystery, this incredible discovery! I think that the entire process—beginning with my very first writing class that I took with you at the College of Marin, and later with our NBW workshops—has been such a beautiful discovery and adventure! I didn’t know, when I first started writing, that I wanted to be a writer. I knew that I wanted to express myself creatively, and I knew that I wanted to connect with others, but I wasn’t sure how. I’ve been a visual artist for years, and writing creatively was something that felt new and exciting.

For SLS, a few of the early drafts of the stories were first written during my time in the workshop. I remember when I wrote my first story, that I wrote my story to you and my wonderful workshop peers. I think that this was because I loved all of my workshop peers so much. And, because before the workshop, I didn’t know how to write knowing/imagining that someone else would read my work, and at the same time, I didn’t know how to write to myself, for myself. I loved being a part of that wonderful group of writers, I loved each week when we met, (even though I was so nervous about sharing my work and receiving feedback), to know that my words and my imagination were being heard, seen by others. I felt connected and alive.

The stories in SLS include ones that I wrote and published individually over the past several years while at both the workshop and at my MFA program. It was when I wrote the title story (during an Oregon State University-funded writing co-residency with my friend, Carson Beker), that I began to see the possibility of putting together a collection. The cohesion might come from my constant interest in (aka obsession with) writing stories about Chinese heritage within multi-generational immigrant families, death, and daughterhood.

My dream is to write a story collection as taut and meaningful as AGGITF. I’m working on a linked flash fiction collection. What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about writing a linked flash fiction collection?

PAP: That’s so exciting that you’re working on a flash collection! You’re one of my favorite flash fiction writers, and I still remember discovering your flash with its unique vision when you came to my class. Your fresh way of seeing and originality of expression was so thrilling and invigorating. I hardly need to give you any advice about writing a linked flash collection. You are teaching me.

If pressed, however, to share my thoughts about collections of flash and other hybrid forms like those in AGGITF, I’d say that it’s important to consider how the reader will experience so many distilled stories one after the other. What is the nature of each flash? When you’ve got highly compressed and condensed stories—and here I mean stories, not anecdotes or vignettes—which, arguably, is what defines flash and/or sets apart those stories that best deliver—it’s worthwhile to think about the demands on the reader. How to adjust pacing? How to allow the reader to take a breath when needed? How to create the larger rhythm? These are the kinds of problems each flash fiction writer will need to solve for themselves, according to the kind of book they’re hoping to create, whether the flash stories are linked or stand alone.

Is this your next writing project? Or are you working on something different? Maybe more than one project at a time?

NA: You are one of my most favorite flash fiction writers, one who’s had such a tremendous influence in so much of what I write. In answer to your question, I think completing a linked collection of flash will challenge me as a writer and artist, to think about pacing, rhythm, and breath. I love how you described earlier the culling and assembling of AGGITF. That was something that I felt so strongly while reading your gorgeous book—the way you dove so deeply into the minds of your protagonists, into their desires and uncertainties, especially those uncertainties with family members, partners, and selves—while simultaneously opening up space for the reader. You did this with the brilliant use of titles, of spacing, of moving into and then later outside of the protagonists’ interiors, your shifts in point-of-view.

I am still in the discovery and mystery phase of writing the linked collection of flash. I agree with you that “mystery is essential.” As a writer, I love structure (deadlines and assignments), but I also thrive in the unknown, in the experimental nature of writing exercises that allow me to laugh at myself, at language.

I’d also love to know about what you’re working on next! Are there pieces of another collection that you’ve been working on? A novel?

PAP: I have two nearly complete manuscripts I’ve been working on over the years. The one that feels most ready is a novel told in flash, “Blow the House Down.” The second is also a novel—I think—though it may revert back to its original form of a linked story collection, stories of a traditional length. I’ve also started a long essay about laughter, with over 63 pages of single-spaced typed notes. Like you, I love to research, and it’s been the best part about the essay. Writing nonfiction is an extreme challenge for me, and I’ve published exactly one essay to date! Meanwhile, in my daily practice, I continue to write occasionally more of the hybrids that you find in AGGITF, and we’ll see what comes of them.

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