Amelia Gray grew up in Tucson, Arizona. Her first collection of stories, AM/PM, was published in 2009. Her second collection, Museum of the Weird, was awarded the Ronald Sukenick/American Book Review Innovative Fiction Prize. She lives in Los Angeles. THREATS is her first novel.
"Amelia Gray is a sharpshooter, precise and deadly. THREATS lures the reader with its poetic sensibilities and then subverts every expectation. Before long, there will be statues of Gray in various corners of the literary world."
"Reading Amelia Gray is like a pyramid of rocks being built on a cloud. That’s to say, it’s something fantastical, dreamlike, playful, and very dangerous. You will be amazed at what this writer can do.”
For this series I’m asking the writers I love to recommend a book. If I haven’t read it, I read it. Then we talk about it.
In this installment, I’m talking with Amelia Gray about Airships by Barry Hannah.
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Colin Winnette: Can you talk a little about what brought you to the book? What were the conditions that led to your picking it up for the first time, and why did you want to talk about it here with me?
Amelia Gray: This great book! I first found Barry Hannah teaching at Texas State, during my first year of grad school. I was 22, and here was this motorcycle-riding troublemaker writing the best fiction I had read in my life. Can you imagine? I couldn't handle it.
CW: Oh wow, so you studied with him? How fortunate! Were these workshops? One-on-ones? How was it structured and what was it like?
AG: I sort of studied with Hannah. Really, I was a bystander for the others who were studying with Hannah. We were only allowed one workshop semester with a visiting writer and I figured I was a young idiot (I was right!) and that I should hold out for Denis Johnson in my last year. Still and all, I feel very lucky about it. I sat in on some one-off workshops and he was about how you might expect — feisty, intimidating, kind in his way. He was approachable. He liked to shoot the shit.
CW: It’s interesting, knowing your work, but not knowing before that you studied with Hannah, I would have probably listed him as one of your influences. Is there anything about your approach to writing, or even living, that you trace back to him specifically?
AG: One thing he said in a Q&A I’ve since quoted to other people a million times, to the point that I’m paraphrasing it, but he said that a story starts as a diamond in his mind, perfect in every way, and when he sits down to write, the diamond crumbles into dust. It crumbles a little more slowly as he gets older, but no matter how many times he sits down to write, it crumbles. That idea has always been a comfort to me.
CW: Some might say you can never recreate/re-present an idea, which occurred to you in a specific context, and in a specific way, so every time you sit down to write, you’re not destroying what was there before, you’re just not able to make it again as it was. You can’t. You’re making something else.
AG: I don’t think it’s willfully destructive so much as it is a simple study in the imperfect leap from brain to page. Like the lady who destroyed the fresco last month — she had an image in her mind and she did the best she could.
CW: When we were setting up this interview, you mentioned you only recently came to Airships. What was your initial reaction to this particular book? Did it differ from the work of his you read as a 22-year-old?
AG: Well, so I was young when I met his work, and so star-struck that I had him sign two of his books: Bats out of Hell and Yonder Stands Your Orphan. I was working my way through Bats out of Hell, reading his stories aloud to boyfriends, but I found I didn't feel comfortable reading the book. I mistreat books, I break the spines and leave them face-down on the sink while I'm washing my hair and whatever. I wanted to read this book and mistreat it but I couldn't bring myself to, maybe because he wrote in it and he was mythologized in my head. Every story he wrote was brilliant and changed my writing, and that was a little scary. I was afraid to break the spell. Then he died and I was too sad to read him for a while. Then, finally, recently, I was neither sad nor afraid. Turned out I'd read half the stories elsewhere so it's not quite true that I hadn't read it anyway.
What a book! What mastery in such considered writing that seems loose and funny! There's so much life and air and love and light. I feel lucky that I didn't read some of these stories when I was 22, that I saved their first experience for when I had the heart to appreciate it. I'm borrowing argument from the Catholic virgins here.
CW: Yes! There is irresistible heart at the core of Hannah’s stories, even the more brutal, such as “Coming Close to Donna.” I think it has a lot to do with the fact that he doesn’t shy away from love. Some kind of intense love is at the heart of almost all of these stories, and few writers other than Hannah can so boldly and confidently say something like, “Love slays fear,” (“Escape to Newark”) and make us really and truly feel it, while at the same time keeping it in voice, buried in the characters in the story, distancing himself from it. Is this something you’ve felt while reading, and, if so, can I ask you something as simple as, how do you think he does it?
AG: Yes, exactly. I'm glad I wrote that paragraph above about love and light before I read this one, because now I feel we are in a synchronicity. "Nothing in the world matters but you and your woman. Friendship and politics go to hell." I suspect he does it because all of his characters have enough of him within them that they each can burst forth with this unique, authentic voice. He's really writing the same story over and over again, his own heart, the song of himself, whatever you'd like to call it. That he does it so damn well is where you've got to sit up and pay attention.
CW: I’ve had this itch about Airships for awhile now, or a curiosity, and it’s about the way Hannah uses religion from story to story. It feels a little different each time, as if he’s approaching it from a variety of angles, and I begin to wonder about this personal relationship to religion. Having known him, what do you make of the biblical references scattered throughout Airships?
AG: Hannah had a near-death kind of experience right around the time I knew him and he told us that he found Jesus in that time. I think I remember him saying that Jesus actually came into to the hospital and sat with him. He wrote in one of my books: “Christ is the strength that you do not have to pray for. Thereness, my lass.”
CW: I’m tempted to let that hang, because it’s beautiful and strange and I really love your answer, but not knowing about your upbringing/your relationship to religion, I have to ask what that meant to you? His message, and his honest belief that he was visited by Jesus? Just as a reader of his work and a fan.
AG: I found it to be an honest belief from the man, the belief that he was visited by Jesus. I was raised in the Presbyterian church and have heard that stuff enough that I don’t find it that strange. I hope that if Jesus ever visits me it’s cool hospital Jesus and not freaked-out jail cell Jesus.
CW: Is there a story that best exemplifies, for you, what this collection can do? Is doing? I think of a story like “Testimony of Pilot,” its range, the strange violences, the characters brutalized by love and the mere passing of time, it feels like this story shows so much of what Hannah is capable of, and he seems so completely in control of all of it. It feels vast and airtight.
AG: Actually I was thinking ‘Testimony of Pilot’ too. There are others that are tighter in terms of plot but I just love ‘Testimony of Pilot" for just that organized appearance of chaos. "Appearance of chaos" instead of "chaos" because there is that work there, yes, though the seams are all stitched tight. And it has one of my favorite lines of all time.
CW: Not to ruin it for those who haven’t read, but I’m guessing it has something to do with a dragon?
AG: Oh yeah, you got it.
CW: There’s a brilliant move in TOP, where Hannah allows his narrator to get sort of out of control, to work himself up to a frenzy — I’m thinking of the recital led by Quadberry — and (credit where credit’s due, Adam Levin first pointed this out to me in a writing seminar at SAIC) Hannah acknowledges it, owns it, and sort of cuts right to the heart of how storytelling works and why we bother to do it. The narrator gives us a nod, after it’s all said and done, and he admits how memory distorts and that he got carried away. He’s mythologizing. What are your thoughts on that reading? Is Hannah writing this self-reflexively? And where else does he exhibit these kinds of acrobatics?
AG: That recital scene is exactly what I’m considering when I think of the appearance of chaos. It feels out of control because we’re not used to that kind of structure in a long story like this. It reminds me of some other writers, ‘How to Tell a True War Story’ by Tim O’Brien, parts of Train Dreams by Denis Johnson.
CW: What’s your position when it comes to control over a story? Do you let a story run away with you, or is each piece carefully plotted beforehand?
CW: If you could only recommend one story from the collection?
AG: ‘Love Too Long’ gets me every time.