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The Future of American Fiction: An Interview with Amelia Gray

If you haven’t noticed, we spend a lot of time thinking about literature here in the Flavorpill offices, digging through its past, weighing its current state, and imagining its future. Take a look at our bookshelves and you’ll find us reading everything from Nobel Prize winners to age-old classics to paperbacks printed at the bookstore down the street. Call it Chick-Lit, Hysterical Realism, Ethnic-Lit, or Translit — if it’s good fiction, we’ll be talking about it. So this summer, we’re launching The Future of American Fiction: an interview series expanding on that endless conversation about books we love, and yes, the direction of American fiction, from the people who’d know. Every Tuesday from now through August, we’ll bring you a short interview with one of the writers we think is instrumental in defining that direction.

This week, we spoke with Amelia Gray, whose excellent first novel Threats was published early this year. Gray’s fiction is bizarre and beautiful at the same time, as intimate as it is alarming. Reading her feels a little like being tugged around on a string to secret places in your home you never would have discovered on your own. We’ve been fans of Gray’s since 2009, when her first work, AM/PM, had us reconsidering our lives, seeking out our old John Mayer T-shirt, and trying to squeeze a few more sentences out of the slim volume. Her second collection, Museum of the Weird, had us seriously considering searching the freezer for a mate and was awarded the Ronald Sukenick/American Book Review Innovative Fiction Prize. What we’re trying to say is that Amelia Gray is a damn fine writer, one who we think will carry the torch for years to come. She’s also, as you will see, quite funny.

How would you characterize the state of American fiction today, and what do you love and/or hate about it?

American Fiction is going great! Today, it’s possible to read both erotica and books written for children without fear of social castigation. In fact, you can read these books out in the open: on airplanes, over dinner, in parks if you still go to parks. Just look at the Kindle bestsellers list and take heart in the fact that America has returned to its porny, easy-reading roots. Your average e-reader is stuffed with enough low-grade smut to power the light bondage fantasies of an entire office of accountants and actuaries. We’ve won, people!

Threats is your first novel, and your previous collections are filled with short — and sometimes very very short — stories. How do the two forms feel different to you? Are you itching to go back to tiny fictions or wanting to write a sweeping epic?

My goal in writing AM/PM was to create a multifarious but cohesive piece of work, so I see each story as a short piece of a complete whole. Still, that book was only 14,000 words. Sustaining a true narrative over the course of a novel was a unique challenge, by which I mean I spent most of the time informing myself that I was a hack. I’m enjoying writing short stories right now, but I am definitely looking forward to calling myself a complete fraud over a course of years in a longer work soon.

The worldview that you express in your work is phenomenal and incredibly strange — how does the world you experience in life become the world in your fiction? That is, is it hard work to create your surreal confections, or are they always lingering in your peripheral vision?

I have a pretty good peripheral vision. Right now, I see a dog there. For me, writing the way I do is a matter of staying in the room long enough. I’m writing a perfectly good story about a laundromat, things are rolling along, people are talking to one another, folding laundry, thinking about laundry, looking at laundry, and then eventually I realize that there’s a ghost in the corner. You know how the scene gets at a bar if you stay there until last call, ten minutes after last call, half an hour? The drunk stumbles out of the back door and sings an aria to a line of trash cans. A woman pulls up in a convertible and throws a birdcage at him. It’s the same thing. If you stay in the room long enough, something strange is going to happen.

Where do you see American fiction going – or, perhaps, where do you hope and/or dread it will go?

Fiction in general is going even more accessible. If you want to read a Polish novel set in 1963, you can find it in ten seconds. If you want a short story collection about jilted lovers written in 2012 but you want to read a review of your options first, BookRiot can help you out. We can get anything we want, whenever we want, and the individual becomes his own guide. I’d say the future of fiction will be even less curated, more egalitarian. It will be a good time for art and a bad time for making money, unless you are writing erotica, in which case it will be a really good time for making money.

Okay, the fun question! What’s the last good book you read?

Cockfighter by Charles Willeford. “The dedicated obsession of a fanatical sport. As in the bullring—to the death. Legal in Florida—illegal in the forty-nine other states. The iron will of a man, whose entire life was channeled into one supreme ambition!”

Illustration by Geoff Mak.

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