Ashley Farmer is the author of The Women (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016), The Famacist (Jellyfish Highway Press, 2015), Beside Myself (PANK/Tiny Hardcore Press, 2014), and the chapbook Farm Town (Rust Belt Bindery, 2012). A former editor for publications like Atomica Magazine, Salt Hill Journal, and others, she currently serves as an editor for Juked. She lives in Salt Lake City, UT with her husband, the writer Ryan Ridge. Her story “Strike City” appeared in Potomac Review #62 in spring 2018.
In the spring of 2018, Potomac Review intern, Audra Jacobs, interviewed Ashley Farmer about the surrealist elements of Farmer’s stories, the women writer’s who inspire her, and how to navigate experiences of sexism in the world of writing and publishing, as the effects of #metoo movement begin to change these male-dominated landscapes.
Audra Jacobs: I noticed in your biography that, in addition to being a writer, you are also an art museum educator. That seems to pop up a bit in “Strike City,” with the burglar defacing a painting and the narrator finding a strong emotional connection with the museum itself. How has being an art museum educator affected your other works?
Ashley Farmer: You know, I think this is the first time I’ve ever written explicitly about an art museum (and as I type this, I feel a little guilty that a work of art gets damaged in the story!). But I think that simply working around art and in an art space that belongs to the public informs my work in other ways: it’s a great place to people watch and, when I work with kids in the galleries, it’s interesting to hear their ideas and reactions. The art itself makes its way in, too: there are certain sculptures and paintings that lingered in my brain as I wrote this story. When you work in a museum, you become close to certain pieces. They become your friends. I think their influence somehow seeps into my work in meaningful but intangible ways.
AJ: Was “Strike City” inspired by a particular town or experience?
AF: I had in mind a skewed version of my hometown of Louisville, KY, but a version that was maybe meshed with another city from the deeper south. This is true for the volatile weather especially. The bar, though, was loosely based off of one I knew from my grad school days in Syracuse, NY. That’s where the cardboard Budweiser girl lived, too, shamrock and all.
AJ: “Strike City” does not seem to read completely realistically; there are poetic elements in it that suggest almost a surrealist look into the narrator’s world. Do your other works lean towards surreal or realistic?
AF: Thanks for saying that. I value the surreal an awful lot as I think it sometimes reflects my own experience of real life better than realistic writing can. The strange logic and surprise we find in dreams or in our imagination is often more interesting to me than concrete reality. Or maybe it’s that I like when those two things—the surreal and the actual—create friction by rubbing up against each other.
AJ: Writing [about] women in a male-driven world is difficult, I’ve found, even if you are a woman. You write them very well; they are people, but they have their own unique feminine struggles, as seen in your [collection of poetry] The Women. Did you have any strong female influences when developing your style?
AF: Thanks for the kind words! And I think that’s exactly right: I think it really can be hard to write women when we’ve been taught to value male perspectives/characters/voices, etc. It has taken me some time to undo that conditioning. I’ve been lucky to have a number of women teachers, mentors, and writers I’ve admired over the years who’ve helped me shift my thinking. These are people like Christine Schutt, Mary Karr, Lydia Davis, Michelle Latiolais… The list goes on and on—I could fill a page with names. The more women I read, the better I write women. (The better I write, period.)
AJ: Have you encountered any strong sexism in the writing world?
AF: I can’t say that I’ve directly encountered sexism in the writing world, although maybe that’s been a matter of luck, really (indirect sexism, I’m not sure…). I know that many women do experience overt sexism and there are ongoing conversations about this, about the way women’s voices are marginalized—not to mention those of LGBTQ+ folks, writers of color, and others whose work doesn’t reflect the now-outdated, tired standards of “best writing.” When I first started making stories and poems, I had this impulse to write from a male voice—I resisted writing from a woman’s POV. I actually remember going in to workshop with poems that I’d tweaked so that they read more masculine (embarrassing in hindsight). But the landscape is changing and what we value as readers/writers is changing. I have optimism around this because I see people in positions of power amplifying marginalized voices. I’m heartened by the range of work receiving acclaim these days. It makes literature so much better for all of us.
AJ: Your poem, “The Women” shares the same title with one of your books. You mentioned that said book contains fragments of the results of researching “women-related phrases.” Is there anything—message, experience or particular woman—that stood out to you in your research?
AF: In doing the Google searches for the book, I was struck by how many of the phrases would generate results across a spectrum. For instance, something like “good women” might bring up anything from women’s lifestyle websites to religious blogs to discussion forum posts from dark, misogynistic internet forums that advocate damaging ideas about women. It was jarring to shift between these extremes. I also noticed that search results were tethered to the news cycle in ways that evolved across short spans of time. An example of this is the phrase “angry women:” if I’d Googled it recently, it would likely have brought up one thing after the most recent presidential election, something else entirely during this #metoo era, and who knows what a month from now. The proper nouns—celebrities, political figures, clothing brands, beauty products, etc.—rotated at a fast pace, too.
AJ: I often encounter struggles with balancing sex and erotic imagery in stories. Do you have any tips on how to do so tastefully (Or not so tastefully)?
AF: It’s tricky, isn’t it? I feel like sex and sexuality show up in my stories in ways that are more odd, startling, or dreamlike than erotic maybe. Which means I have work to do when it comes to writing these scenes in stronger and compelling ways! But I think well-written sex/sexuality can reveal something so essential about characters in a story, particularly in work that addresses gender. I need to keep practicing and learning from people who do this better than I do.
AJ: Have you ever written from a perspective drastically different from your own, like a different ethnicity or gender?
AF: Well, apart from early attempts to masquerade as a man in my writing (see above), I haven’t really written from a drastically different perspective. I think that if my work was more character driven I would be thinking about how/if I could do this well and responsibly and thoughtfully and, if so, what that would look like. But as it stands, I feel most comfortable mining terrain that I know well and expressing experiences not too drastically different from my own.
AJ: Which book that you’ve written is your favorite?
AF: Maybe The Farmacist because it was the most fun and strange to write—a little fever dream of a book that I wrote in a fever dream of my own. But once I finish a book, I don’t feel so attached to it any longer. Whatever it is I’m currently working on is where my allegiance is, where I feel proud and giddy and hopeful.
AJ: Where do you see your writing going in the next 30 years?
AF: I want to continue playing across forms and genres. Right now, I’m working on a collection of stories tentatively titled Gun Collection. These stories are in the vein of “Strike City,” pieces that are longer (for me), women-centric, and in pursuit of a better understanding of violence. I’m also working on a nonfiction book about my family. Down the road, I see myself working on longer projects, taking a more time with them, going at a slow and steady pace. Building my endurance and still allowing myself to dive into those dark, surreal places I love so much.