Ashley Hutson Interview with Jonathan Cardew
Thank you so much, Ashley, for joining us this month at Connotation Press. I’m very excited to share these three fictions with our readers.
I came across your work last year, and I have to say there is something very special about the prose you write. I can’t quite put my finger on it. “Shtick,” “Big Meaning,” and “The Last Hurricane” are exemplary stories—straightforward narratives with a dark, almost surreal undercurrent driving them forward. I feel almost like I am watching a David Lynch film when I read your work (except I understand more about what’s going on). How would you describe your work?
I accept and welcome your description of my work. I avoid describing my own work unless I'm blowharding my way through an NEA grant application, but who knows—with the way things are going in the world, I may never have that opportunity again! Ugh. I have a general distrust toward everything I've written and published so far. There are a few exceptions, of course. I don't think I've said anything I really want to say yet. I'm always looking forward.
These three stories deal with loss—both physically and metaphorically. In “Shtick” and “Big Meaning,” loss comes in the form of lost limbs. Tell us a little about how these stories came into the world.
That's funny—the connection between the two stories of “lost limbs” never occurred to me until I read your question, and I can't tell you how pleased with myself I am right now. My brain is obviously at work in ways I am not aware.
Practically speaking, “Big Meaning” came out of an online workshop I took, and “Shtick” I wrote on my own. As for inspiration, I'm probably working out subconscious long-ago traumas or something boring like that. I had a lot of trouble with my legs when I was a child. I admit, I've chopped off a lot of legs in my fiction over the past year. It's getting a little tired.
Your website states that you are represented by an agent. That’s pretty sweet! Can you tell us how that came to be? What projects are you working on?
Yes, it is pretty sweet, I agree. It was luck, fate, the stars aligning. Somehow, my now-agent, Zoe Sandler, happened to find a story of mine at McSweeney's Internet Tendency and liked it. She emailed me and I nearly deleted her email. I thought it was spam. Thank goodness my curiosity and raging egotism prevailed over my suspicion and paranoia. Things went from there. Right now I'm working on a novel.
Who are your favorite contemporary fiction writers? Golden oldies?
I like what Maryse Meijer, Amelia Gray, and Ottessa Moshfegh are doing, and recently I've enjoyed the work of Han Kang and Samanta Schweblin. My favorite writer ever is Joy Williams. I'm also a fan of Joyce Carol Oates, Bret Easton Ellis, Thomas Hardy, Edouard Leve, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, so many others. Last year I read an incredible book titled I'm Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid, which blew my mind and made me think about what literature can do and how it can do it in wild and new ways.
If the year 2016 were a blockbuster movie, what would it be called and who would star in it?
I take the long view on this. We better save the movie-naming for a later date, because a lot worse is coming. I have a dim view of humanity and the world in general, sorry. I think 2016 will be a carousel ride on a pleasant July day compared to what's ahead. A lot of people died in 2016, but a lot of people die every year. A lot of people will die this year. That is the way of things.
What is your earliest writing memory?
I remember the first time I understood I could read. I was waiting to be prepped for one surgery or another. I was lying flat in a reclining wheelchair and reading a floppy-cover Winnie the Pooh book when I suddenly realized, I am reading this book. These shapes are words and I know what they mean. How do I know what they mean? It was a revelation, a wonderful discovery. I think I tried to tell my parents, but they were somewhat dejected and preoccupied, as you might imagine parents would be in that situation. I was very young. It's an excellent memory.
In your website, you talk about how you quit a full-time job to write and how depression nearly led you to take your life. Can you tell us a little about how you approach your writing practice? How does depression or mental illness influence your work?
Oh, God, the damn blog posts. I never know what to do with them besides listing my accomplishments like a braggart. Everyone hates a braggart, you know, but I have little else I wish to share with strangers. I have to keep doing it—keep an online presence, that is—because I don't have the money or hot connections that would allow me to succeed as a writer while maintaining a reclusive mystique. Deleting social media, preserving personal dignity, not spilling one's guts about one's stupid life—these things are luxuries, make no mistake. I think describing my time of suicidal hell was my idea of lending "personality" to that blog entry. I carry sunshine wherever I go, Jonathan!
I now feel much better in the head, thank God, and I approach my writing practice like a job. I sit in a chair for most the day and I do the work. Because of how I was raised and my personality, I have never been able to accept having depression or mental illness. And this is despite having a medical diagnosis, trying medication and therapy, etc. etc., all the usual trappings. I still can't believe it. I'm in perpetual denial. I just think of myself as myself, with a peculiar disposition. Whatever personality leaches into my writing is part of this stormy, intractable “disposition” of mine, I guess. What I'm saying is that I don't know how depression influences my work, because I am my work. I don't like to think of other factors taking credit for it, although I know I'm probably delusional for thinking this.
Submitting work for consideration at literary journals can be an equally exciting and infuriating pursuit. On your website, you list some of your acceptance and rejection numbers. What advice do you have for writers, when it comes to getting their work published? What would be your dream publication?
Well, I can tell you what works for me. I have found that following submission guidelines, not being a jerk, tenacity, and good writing have brought me success. Other people may find their own way. I'm not an expert and am skeptical of anyone who glad-hands advice.
Listen, I wanted to get ahead. I still do. I did not get in the writing game to lollygag on Twitter and socialize, although that's happened and I'm occasionally glad, even thankful, for it happening. Some people are in the literary game to hob-knob and ride coattails and put on the dog, and that's fine. But I wanted to improve my craft and move up the literary magazine tiers. When starting out I was strategic about where I submitted and how I submitted. I was relentless, tireless. I don't have an MFA, and I don't have a lot of resources at my disposal, but I used Twitter and a website to market my work. I've never met any of my writer acquaintances in real life, and I am fine with that. My in-person people skills are not great. I only wish to write and share my work and read the good work of other people. That's all.
Dream publications…I'm going to be in one of them soon—I just had a piece I'm proud of accepted at Wigleaf. I'm excited about Wigleaf because I believe that an acceptance there is a kiss of blessing from the writing gods. So many writers published there have gone on to do great things. There's some superstition at work in my excitement.
My ultimate publication dream would be winning a writing competition judged by a favorite author of mine, wherein I would defeat all comers to win critical acclaim from a person I professionally admire plus fistfuls of money. This, I believe, would be the undeniable pinnacle of success.
Thank you, Ashley, for sharing these stories, and for speaking candidly about your experiences.
Thank you, Jonathan. I really blew some hot air for as much as I claimed to dislike talking about myself. Clearly, I'm a liar who cannot be trusted.
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