An Interview with Ali Simpson

14 Nov
Ali Simpson is a recent graduate of the MFA program at SUNY Southampton and works for X.

Ali Simpson is a recent graduate of the MFA program at SUNY Southampton and is at work on a collection of speculative fiction.

Ali Simpson received her MFA in creative writing and literature from SUNY Stony Brook Southampton. In addition to The Southampton Review, her work has been published or is forthcoming in The First Line and Carrier Pigeon. She is currently working on a collection of speculative fiction, When Meat is Given a Second Chance. She works as a publishing assistant and lives in the forest.

In this interview, Simpson discusses maintaining the sense of enchantment, the heart in the story machine, and why a monster story can be more truthful than realistic fiction.

(To read Simpson’s story “The Monster” and an exercise about how to create that monster, click here.)

Michael Noll

In the story’s first line, you state that there’s a monster in the closet. In the next line, you write, “He shouldn’t have been there—she wasn’t a little girl; she was a grown woman with a full-time job and a roof over her head that she paid for herself with her full-time job.” The rest of the paragraph lists all the reasons why the monster shouldn’t exist, and then the next paragraph begins, “So the monster came at the right time in her life.” It’s a really masterful piece of writing. You’ve let the readers off the hook, telling them, essentially, that, no, monsters can’t exist, but there’s one in this story, and that’s okay. How long did it take you to get that opening paragraph right?

Ali Simpson

I had to look at the paragraph from my first draft and the final version in order to be able to honestly say this: Up until the last line, the paragraph stayed exactly the same. The last line was the only part that is different—mostly a matter of cutting and smoothing out that first draft clunkiness that makes you write things like “she turned her head at a 90 degree angle in puzzlement…” rather than “Confused, she…”

The beginning was easy. It felt like a perfectly natural thing to write. There are all sorts of things out there that shouldn’t exist—but they do all the same. People accept a loved one has cancer, they accept mass shootings, they accept freak accidents, they accept random acts of cruelty. Telling someone, “This shouldn’t happen, but today, it is happening,” is life-stuff (and the beginning of a lot of great stories).The idea of a monster in the closet isn’t so outlandish.

What took a couple of months to get right was the middle and the end. Those were brutal. Maintaining the sense of enchantment even when the reader knows how the trick works is incredibly difficult, I can only think of a few people who have mastered it (Marquez, Atwood).

Michael Noll

In that same paragraph, the story suggests that the monster is, in part, a manifestation of certain monstrous qualities possessed by the character: “She suspected she had a few scary stories lurking inside her and spent the better part of some nights guessing what they might be.” I’m curious if this parallel between the character’s personal issues and the real existence of the monster was always present. In other words, did you begin the story with the monster and discover the character’s issues, or did you have a sense of the character from the start and then discover the monster? As readers, we only get to see the final draft, in which all details seem serendipitously inevitable. But, of course, that’s not how a story begins. What was your process for developing the story?

Ali Simpson

By the way, the line in the question was the one that changed. It was originally this mess of three lines: “Those stories were just the ones outside of herself. Lauren told herself awful stories every night, some sad, some angry, some fretful and some far more humiliating than they should have been. The stories were her past and what she thought her future might be.” Awful, right?

As for the actual questions—I started with wanting to write about a monster in the closet. I like monsters, robots, mutants, apocalypses, utopias, and outer space. These things are fun, and they offer a candy store full of possibility. Unfortunately, the fun is a lie. You can’t get far writing about a monster in the closet without asking questions. Why is it there? Why isn’t the main character afraid of it? Why is she taking it in and caring for it? What sort of person is attracted to repellent things? Monsters, machines, extreme conditions—these are all vehicles for exploring what makes human beings tick. Inevitably, the ride turns scary. I developed the story through reflecting on the above sorts of questions. The monster showed up in this particular woman’s closet for a reason. In hashing out the first draft, I worked to discover that reason. Whenever Laura did something, the monster would have to react and vice versa—until the monster and Laura at last become “inseparable.”

Michael Noll

Your former writing teacher, Susan Merrell, recommended this story at Electric Literature. In explaining why, she wrote that, in this story, you figured out that “a story has to have a reason for being. And if a story’s why is understood by its author, then its how—the means, the mode, the POV, the structure, the characters—will fall into place.” What, would you say, is this story’s reason for being? How did you find out what its reason for being was?

Ali Simpson

Susie was very kind to me in that introduction. She is also a genius.

This story’s reason for being started out as something personal. Someone was very cruel to me a long time ago, and I felt as if I couldn’t do anything about it because, despite everything I had been told, I was a depressed ghost of a person. As I wrote, I understood that the events in the story did not happen to me, but to a woman named Laura, and, in reality, to millions of other people. The story is for other people who feel the same way I felt. Part of growing up and being human is recognizing that your feelings are not necessarily unique to you. Everyone has their monsters. And we all feed our gremlins after midnight.

I like to think of a story’s reason for being as “the heart in the machine.” The machine is all of the cold, moveable, sometimes interchangeable parts. The POV, the structure, the characters. The heart is whatever compelled you to sit down and stare at the blank page, to craft imaginary people who live in made up worlds, to construct emotion, desire, and conflict out of a few scraps of black and white.

You have to have a reason to attempt to do something so stupid. Generally, the reason is love.

Michael Noll

This story falls into a genre of story that is sometimes called “fabulist.” Its practitioners include writers like Manuel Gonzales, Karen Russell, and Kelly Luce. When I featured Kelly’s story “Rooey” on this site, I asked her why this type of story–one in which certain conventions of genre fiction are integrated into the worlds and language of realism–has become not only popular but esteemed. After all, Karen Russell just won a MacArthur, and she nearly won the Pulitzer. Here is what Kelly Luce said: “We all loved reading as kids, and kids’ books are often extremely imaginative. In this age of extended adolescence and “be yourself” messages, maybe those writers who wanted to play a bit more with fantasy/genre/supernatural stuff felt free enough to do so.” (The entire interview can be found here.) How would you explain the prominence of these kinds of stories? What inspired you to write about a literal monster and not a figurative one?

Ali Simpson

I don’t agree with what Luce said above (although I find her complete answer to the question quite interesting!) The whole concept of extended adolescence always seemed a bit silly. I’ve been in the adult world long enough to know that most people are still scared, confused, jealous and a little bit petty. Also, no one buys that “be yourself” crap. Even little kids know that being yourself earns immediate approbation from the group. I don’t think people write fantastical stories based on whimsy or because they enjoy being weird.

If I had to offer a guess, I would say the prominence of these stories dates to the post-modern movement that began in the 60s. Along with the subversion of traditional narratives, writers also worked at reclaiming folklore and fairytale for the purposes of new kinds of storytelling. For the past few decades, I think many writers have felt that that fantasy and fairytales are true because these stories “know” that they are stories, whereas mediocre realism can feel like an illusion that is denying it is an illusion.

For me, writing about fantastical things such as monsters helps me get at the truth of what I’m trying to say. I’ve never been able to manage writing realistic fiction because I find myself slipping into the dishonesty of everyday life. For me, I have to look a monster—something not of this world—in the face in order to understand the world I’m living in.

November 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

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