Ashley Farmer is the author of The Women (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016), The Farmacist (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 including 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 issue #62 in spring 2018.
In the fall of 2019, Potomac Review intern Jeremiah Hake interviewed Ashley Farmer about her unique writing style, real-life and fantastical sources of inspiration for her work, and her influences from other writers. This is Farmer’s second interview with Potomac Review; the first one occurred in the spring of 2018.
Jeremiah Hake: You have a pretty distinctive writing style, frequently surreal, frequently leaning away from the literal and toward the lyrical. How did you develop this style, and how would you describe your writing to someone who’s totally unfamiliar with it?
Ashley Farmer: You described it pretty well; there’s a lot of surreal imagery, there’s a lot of dream logic, there’s ways that the actual, everyday physical world sort of bumps up against another kind of layer of reality that’s often strange. In terms of the style, I think having studied poetry first, before writing much fiction or nonfiction, I focused a lot on rhythm, cadence and the noise of the sentence, and the way words can sound when they’re banging into each other—I think that has informed my style when it comes to fiction and nonfiction, that kind of poetry ear, or a love for what language can do.
JH: Some writers like to create an outline before they tackle a book or story, while others plunge right into the thick of things. I personally switch back and forth between these approaches quite often. What is your writing process like?
AF: I think it depends on the project. In the past, when I’ve worked on smaller individual pieces, I’ve tested the waters in working with the same ideas or imagery to see if it felt like there was a bigger project there—like, is there a chapbook there; is there a book there? In those cases it’s not that I necessarily set out to create a full-length manuscript, but rather started doing a few things and then something starts to naturally accrue and it becomes a bigger project. Right now, I’m trying to be a little more methodical in finishing a nonfiction project because it’s these different essays that have to somehow connect to tell a story about family and California. They have to connect without overlapping too much or repeating the same things, so I’m trying to be a little more strategic with that and with the novel that I’ve started, too. So I’ll probably look to how other people have done things with outlines and notecards and whatever those systems are that people use; I’m going to have to start trying those out…
JH: I think Nabokov would write individual ideas on notecards and then arrange them into novels.
AF: Yes! I can imagine that system being very beautiful, probably, very methodical. How do you do it? Do you work with outlines?
JH: I occasionally work with outlines; sometimes it’s just a list of things I want to include in a piece. […] According to two literary critics, your novella The Farmacist was based on the Facebook game Farm Town. […] What inspired you to use Farm Town as the basis for a work of fiction?
AF: I was living in Southern California at the time, I’d never been a big game player, and no offense to the makers of Farm Town, it’s not the most complex or engaging game. But what happened was, I found myself, just in order to kind of escape—when I was working multiple jobs trying to make ends meet, commuting for insane hours every day—I would play this really stupid game. And this idea of agriculture—Oh, there’s trees, and there’s farm, and there’s crops you can grow—it felt so absurd and almost funny and beautiful to me that you could have coins and buy things in this really serene way, when I was living in this world that for me felt really kind of crazy. Big freeways of traffic, and…trying to make a living. That was an escape for sure—middle of the night, ride around and see if my flowers are growing. And then it became kind of a fun thing to take a deep dive into, to look at job stuff, and the economy, and nature versus the big city, and connections to home and land…through the lens of this silly game.
JH: I understand that The Women was based in part on Google search results for various women-related phrases. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
AF: I had been teaching a composition class, a research writing class actually, and we had done some learning about the Google filter bubble, and so I was interested in this idea that the more you Google things, the more Google tailors its responses to what you searched. That in itself was kind of fascinating to me, this idea that if I Google “Maryland” and you Google “Maryland,” a whole different set of results are gonna come up for both of us. So that was just one little spark, and then I was curious to see what would happen if you Google a phrase like “sad women”—what comes up? And so it was kind of fun to look and see this amalgamation of…anything from tabloid stuff to beauty magazines to religious doctrine to Reddit threads of different kinds; to see what those yielded and to realize that the more I clicked on or responded to what those yielded, it would give me more of the same…it became this experiment. And then I would take whatever was on the first seven pages of those results, not the stuff I clicked on but just what was there that would wash over me, copy and paste it and then would collage it. Sometimes trying to make something irreverent, sometimes hopeful, or critical, out of what was essentially junk, or even hatred sometimes, depending on the result.
JH: Many of us feel more inspired in some locales than in others, and many of us find that our work leans toward one theme or another based on where we are. You’ve lived in a number of different regions—Louisville, Syracuse, Salt Lake City and more. How has that affected your writing?
AF: That’s a great question. It affects it a lot—I feel lucky that I’ve lived in different places, sometimes for school or sometimes for jobs, and the details of different locales are really interesting to me. And some are kind of a part of me, like my family that lives in the desert in Nevada; sagebrush and sand and the Sierra Mountains—all of that, I feel, is part of my DNA. Same with aspects of Kentucky. But I do think that there’s different kinds of stories to be found in these kinds of locales. I think I’ve really utilized that. Sometimes, when enough time has passed and I’m no longer in that place, I can reflect on it and kind of have a different perspective that feels helpful and rich for creativity. Maybe it’s an idealized version, or maybe selective memories of a place, but it becomes a helpful thing. [laughs]
JH: About a year and a half ago, you were interviewed by another Potomac Review intern and said, “The more women I read, the better I write women.” Can you share some things you’ve learned from reading other female authors?
AF: I think that, like a lot of people, and maybe in particular people in my age group, I was raised on a lot of literature by men—by Hemingway, by Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, those sorts of writers, and I didn’t really have a lot of exposure in school to many women writers until later in college, or even grad school. I’m hesitant to make any generalizations based on gender, but I do think seeing examples of women who can write very experimentally, or pretty fiercely, or tread territory that maybe only women can do really well, like sometimes the psyches and the motivations of women characters…it’s helpful for me and it makes me feel more inspired and empowered to try new things I might not have tried otherwise.
JH: What authors would you count among your formative influences as a writer?
AF: I guess I can think of it in different eras—when I was in high school and I was a voracious reader, I really loved poetry, and I loved the Beat Poets, I loved Jack Kerouac, I loved Sylvia Plath…a lot of those more modern-ish or contemporary poets have been important to me. I think then in grad school I learned a lot from my teachers who were also writers, so, Christopher Kennedy, and Mary Karr, and George Saunders and Bruce Smith and Brooks Haxton—there’s a whole slew of people there that both taught me and also are masterful writers, and to be able to dive into their work and also experience how they teach, those two things together make for a really powerful influence. And then there’s just some writers that I’ll always have a fondness for; Richard Brautigan is a writer that I love. There are other people like that, where maybe a single book made an impression and I go back to a writer like that again and again.
JH: Your story “Strike City” prominently features a cardboard cutout, “the Budweiser girl,” and you mentioned in that previous interview that it was based on an actual object you encountered in Syracuse. What other real-world objects have ended up appearing in your fiction, and what about them inspired you to include them?
AF: That Budweiser girl, I can’t say that she was especially significant except that she took up residence in this one tiny bar in this one tiny town where I lived, so I encountered her often. But I very much am interested in things and details, as much as character and plot, and so…any number of objects from any number of places pop up. I think a lot of times, things that feel like they have some relationship to what I am thinking about in my everyday life; there’s objects from pop culture that often show up, or radio, or television, media themselves will show up sometimes because I spend time thinking about how that is a part of our world. A lot of times geography, and the objects that are a part of different geographies, are interesting to me. Music and sounds play a role, and lately, because I work in an art museum, art has played a big part; it just pops up, and I think it’s because I spend all day around it. It’s just in my brain, and it makes its way into work.
JH: In what way has your perspective on the writing world, or the broader world of the arts, changed over the course of your career?
AF: I used to think that finding a place within that world meant you had to be very special and you had to be competitive with other people. I think that’s the narrative we’re often taught, right? That there’s only so much room for people to contribute their work, that there’s only so much space. And I don’t believe that’s true any longer. I think there’s a spot for everybody. I feel happy to see people making really concerted efforts to elevate underrepresented perspectives and voices. I think that’s just proof that there’s room for everybody, and I think we’re all the richer for that. So I think I have a bigger-hearted, more generous view of arts and the writing world than I probably did ten years ago. In any field there will always be some superstars, and that’s great, but I think there’s space for everybody.
JH: What are you currently working on or planning to write?
AF: Three things. I’m trying to finish a collection of stories called Gun Collection, and they all kind of address guns in some way, kind of looking at violence, which I feel is a part of our culture that…I haven’t been able to ignore. I’ve been interested in thinking about that via stories. I’m writing a book about my family, a nonfiction book of essays that are related to my family but also things like adjunct teaching and family history and the American dream, I’m trying to finish that. And I’m also in the very “baby” stages of working on a novel.