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Creating Ghost Stories From Vintage Photographs

Creating Ghost Stories From Vintage Photographs

Maria Romasco Moore’s debut book, Ghostographs, is an entirely unique “novella-in-flash,” combining stories and vintage photographs that create an experience that’s both eerie and sublime. It’s a coming-of-age story that takes place in a small town full of secrets and ghosts and unforgettable characters. The book has received high praise from the likes of Carmen Maria Machado, who blurbed: “Each of these stories is its own ghost: startling, uncanny, gone. Each one rattles its chains, smiles its terrible smile, gestures towards the others.”

I was lucky enough to talk with Maria about her writing, the appeal of old photographs, working with a small press, and more.

I wanted to start with the author’s note that comes at the end of Ghostographs, and how you write about this collection of old photographs you slowly built and started from childhood. Can you talk a bit about your fascination with old photographs? When you looked through old photographs in yard sales or flea markets, were there particular types of old photographs that you gravitated towards? 

I’m not sure what first drew me to old photographs, but from the very beginning my favorite ones were the mistakes. Accidental double exposures. Shots so blown out with light they seem to glow. Blurred faces. I enjoy the stiff, posed studio shots where everyone looks serious, but I prefer pictures that people took themselves in backyards, propping babies up in front of bushes.

It is simple nowadays to take a hundred photos until you get the perfect one, but with older film cameras there was less control, more uncertainty, a greater sense of capturing a moment. It feels wilder and more magic to me.

That magic really translates into this book! From the very first story, “The Woman Across the Way” even; we get an old woman, who, the narrator swears, has snakes under her skin. There’s a childlike wonder to these stories and characters, but I also felt something dark, and often foreboding, that was captivating for me. This is a long-winded way of asking about the tension between childhood and the unknown: Is this something that interests you as a writer, especially when writing Ghostographs?  

Short answer: yes! I am very interested in the way that children filter darkness through their particular imaginative way of seeing the world. I don’t think there is an incompatibility there, necessarily. Childhood is all about the unknown. Most of the world is unknown when you are a child, so most of it is simultaneously magical and foreboding. And kids are rarely as oblivious to darkness and sadness as adults hope.

I was fascinated by what was recurring in this book: ghosts, for sure, but also light keeps coming up too. One of the last stories, “Light” really struck me, with the lines: “We don’t exist, not the way we think we do. A photograph does not record what is actually there. Only light.” And then later, “Light dreamed us up. Light switched us on.” I was very moved –– and the picture next to the story complimented it perfectly. By only being able to see the top edge, I felt like the light was so blinding that I couldn’t see the rest. Can you talk about your use of light in the book and what light means to you? 

I remember taking a bath once when I was young, and the power was off or something, and I saw that without light everything turned gray, even my skin, and I had this goofy little kid epiphany that color isn’t real. Nothing is inherently blue. Blue is a gift that light gives, and it can take it away.  I guess I really believe everything I say in the book! Everything we see, everything we take for granted as reality –– it’s all just light.

Could you go over the process of writing Ghostographs? I’m especially curious if you started writing these stories with the intention of it being a book? How long did it take to come together?

I did always envision the project as a book. I actually started writing Ghostographs during a one-month residency at a punk house/artist’s collective in Pittsburgh called the Cyberpunk Apocalypse. Only one out of three bathrooms in the house worked, there was a hole in the roof, and no heat. But they did have a scanner! I huddled beside a space heater in my small third-floor room and put together a first draft, which was about half the length it is now. Generally, I would stare at a photograph until I got a first line, and then go from there.

I was twenty-three at that time. I showed it to a few friends, submitted it to one chapbook contest. Got rejected. I put it aside for a while to work on other projects, then brought it back out a few years later, expanded it, and sent it to Rose Metal.

What was it like working with Rose Metal Press? It seems like an ideal press with their work with hybrid genres. 

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Abby and Kathleen of Rose Metal are so incredibly dedicated and on top of everything. Ghostographs is my first book, so it was great to have their guidance. There are lot of things –– proposing panels to AWP, writing an essay for lithub –– that I probably wouldn’t have done if they hadn’t made me (well, gently encouraged me). Promotion and hustling doesn’t really come naturally to me, so I’m infinitely thankful that Rose Metal did such an amazing job of getting the book out there in front of readers and reviewers. I still can’t believe I got to see my book reviewed in The New York Times Book Review!

What books do you think inspired you during the writing of Ghostographs?

Big inspirations that I’m aware of would be Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino and the webcomic A Softer World by Joey Comeau and Emily Horne. I read a lot. Usually several books at a time, in many genres  so I’m sure it all trickled in.

What’s your next project? 

I have a novel, Some Kind of Animal, coming out in the summer of 2020, about a teenage girl with a secret, feral twin sister who lives in the woods. I’m working on another novel right now, as well as a novella, and some text + image pieces that are based around my own photographs. It’s hard for me to only work on one project at a time!

By Maria Romasco Moore
Rose Metal Press
Published Nov. 2018

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  • Reblogged this on IRISH FIREBRANDS: A Novel ~ and Other Works by Christine Plouvier, Indie Author and commented:
    In my collection of vintage family photos there is one that is not identified. It’s a turn-of-the-century wedding portrait, and the youthful couple stare at the camera with almost deer-in-the-headlights expressions. I can see no resemblance between any of my great-grandmother’s relatives (identified in other period photos) and either the husband or the wife. Friends of the family? Extended family members? The passage of more than a hundred years has erased the memory of their identity.

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