Yemassee Interview: 7 Questions with Garrett Ashley

Garrett Ashley's “Last Stand of the Alligator Killers” appeared in Issue 23.2.

1. Where are you from and where are you now?How does (or doesn’t) place influence your work?

I grew up on a woodsy hill in southwest Mississippi. We have swamps farther south, the closest to us being hidden beneath a tangle of interstate exits and overpasses. The Mississippi Gulf Coast might be considered the world's biggest stretch of man-made beach. It used to be nearly thirty miles of swamp. Twenty years ago, you'd lose count of the casinos and hotels. Then Katrina did away with all that. There are still a few casinos and hotels there, but I remember a period shortly after when all you could find was a Waffle House, one every half a mile or so.

I think that's kind of how the Joes are functioning in the Alligator Killers. Either nature or technology surpasses us, some way or the other.

But I think the biggest thing that carries over from my personal community is a sense of isolation, I know what it's like to know everyone in the neighborhood, to be on speaking terms. And for something like this, something I'm not so familiar with, it really becomes easier to mystify something without (I hope!) overstretching my bounds, getting too much wrong. One of the best things about writing from the perspective of a singular, isolated family, is that I'm able to insert myself into their situations without (I hope!) getting too much wrong on a more global scale.

2. What’s your number one rule of writing?

If I'm not losing sleep over it, then I probably shouldn't continue working on it. A story needs to be something that I'm thinking about all the time. I have to know that it's not just a cool spark of an idea. Kind of on par with that, I have to recognize the difference between a perfectly constructed story and a story that's actually good.

3. What is strangest about your writing process?

Probably a lot of people do this, but I can't write without a little background noise. I have a favorites playlist on YouTube that starts with Sweet's "Love is like Oxygen" and goes on for a while—I think I usually stop writing at Blonde Redhead's "In Particular." I don't know, the list keeps getting bigger so by the time this comes out I'll have a different routine. But once my last designated song is over, my body goes into standby mode and I find it hard to go on. It's an hour or two of writing. I'm trying too hard to make "listening to music while writing" sound like a weird, magical thing.

4. Describe the lifespan of this piece: how did it start, how was it revised, how drastically did it change? What was the most difficult part of writing it?

It started with a golden fish, a couple years ago. I think the fish granted wishes or something like that. It lived in a cave. I remember wanting to write a story with lights in it. This may have resulted in three or four-hundred words, but I couldn't figure out how to go on—the structure of a lot of the stories I like (over at Clarkesworld, for instance) sometimes have a kind of fairytale-esque prologue/intro that's short, just enough stuff to provide context and get us invested in the world (and language!). But eventually I scrapped all that in favor of alligators, which are cooler than fish. Sorry, that's just how it works for me. The alligator in question dies "off screen" and then you have all the background crap out of the way which, initially, seems great in my head but in execution is kind of boring. I like the "afterwards" part of a concept.

5. How does (or doesn’t) this piece fit in with your larger body of work?

I've written a lot about bizarre interactions with nature, animal life in particular, mystical and otherwise. The Stranger Comes to Town narratives featuring weird animals. I've written about pigs, sea monsters, jellyfish, spiders (in our noses, specifically), and mutated alligators. I'm sketching a story now about a prison made of colossal whale organs. Except I don't know why that would ever make sense, so that story may not happen.

6. One of the many things the Yemassee crew admires in this piece is the careful juxtaposition of the character's humanity and the fabulist elements. Can you speak to the challenges of this balancing act?

The hardest thing for me about writing a fabulist piece, magical, science fiction, whatever, is keeping the world in the background, not do so much worldbuilding and rule making that it disconnects you from what you're really trying to say. We still need to know how all this weird stuff works, of course; I don't always get it right, but describing the rules of a story has to in some way be connected to the experiences of the protagonist. That usually means trusting your reader to some extent, feigning from information overload. The trust your reader thing is the hardest part for me, because I make unnatural assumptions about what's going to be obvious to the reader. It's talked about in workshops plenty enough, and has nothing to do with the genre.

I try to ask, what is the minimum I need to know about a world in order to understand the driving force behind conflict? To that extent, if the more conceptual stuff isn't the thing pushing conflict, then maybe I should write realism. That's debatable.

7. What’s your procrastination of choice?

Oh, Christ. Video games. Right now I'm obsessed with the Kaizo levels on Mario Maker (Asshole Mario, it's supposedly called by the people who are actually good at it). I just started school again, so maybe the video games need to go.

Garrett Ashley is pursuing a PhD in fiction at the University of Southern Mississippi. His stories appear in Asimov's Science Fiction, Analog SF&F, Smokelong Quarterly, and NANO Fiction, among others. He can be found on Twitter @GAAshley1.