Writing the Hurts Out in “Sleepovers”

An interview with Ashleigh Bryant Phillips on her collection, Sleepovers.

I first met Ashleigh Bryant Phillips in a record store in Charleston, WV. We were part of a reading set up by the Travelin’ Appalachians Revue. The event was fun—great writing from old and new friends alike—and then Ashleigh took the stage. She unlocked her phone and birdsongs sang from the speakers above. She stalked back and forth in front of us—her voice and her story so urgent it was impossible to look away. The dense insect-and-songbird drone of a southern summer threaded under and over her. I knew I was in the presence of genius.

Ashleigh grew in Woodland, NC, a town of less than 800 people. Until she attended Meredith College in Raleigh, she spent her life in a rural county with less than 41 people per square mile. It makes sense that a voice like Ashleigh’s would come out of the experience of being raised around more animals and fields and trees than people. Ashleigh writes the animals and fields and trees in her book with equally as much compassion and detail as she does her beautifully complicated human characters. While Sleepovers is set in the south, it cannot be compartmentalized as a southern book. It is so much more than that. It is a book about how stupidly sweet and heartbreaking it is to be alive on this earth—alive as a tree, alive as a deer, alive as a teenage girl in a field full of silver queen corn.

Ashleigh and I caught up recently over email and talked about home, religion, mental health, and the path to publication.

Mesha Maren

Is there one single word that you most associate with the place you come from?

Ashleigh Bryant Phillips

Lord. As in scripture, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” As in hymns, “Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!” As in prayer, “Dear Lord…” But also as self expression, like showing slight disapproval, “Lord have mercy,” or “Lord, child.” Or showing surprise or astonishment, “Good Lord!” Which also leads me to “Good Land!” which is interchangeable with “Good Lord!”

But Land makes me think of all the beautiful sounding Native names for places back home. And who knows if us folks back home are saying these names the way the Natives intended. But when I hear these words it always brings me back to where I came from. (I’ll try to write how the locals pronounce them.)

Ahoskie (Uh-ha-ski)

Cutawhiskie (Cut-uh-whiskie)

Potecasi (Pot-uh-casey)

Meherrin (Muh-hair-in)

Roanoke (Rone-uck)

Chowan (Choh-juan)

Mesha Maren

I’m curious about the organization of your book. Sleepovers involves a kind of poly-vocalic construction where multiple voices give us perspectives on the same place or event. The stories are interconnected in certain ways, characters and places reappear and echo back, but it is not interconnected in the way that a book like Olive Kitteridge is. Can you talk about your drafting and revision processes as they pertain to structure? At what point in your process did the various voices come in and how did you decide on the final order?

Ashleigh Bryant Phillips

When I was writing the stories, I was trying to reckon with where I was from. I was dating some bad apple dudes, and my daddy was dying of Alzheimer’s. I wanted to write these hurts out of me, and sometimes once wasn’t enough. I needed to write them out of me over and over again. So an echo quality naturally appears in the stories. Then when I put the stories together as a collection, I saw that characters were all using the same gas station and grocery store, and some attended the same church. So I figured I should make some characters reappear every so often wherever it felt right, to create more community and/or claustrophobia. And gosh, as far as the order goes, I was rearranging right up until the last minute. But I always knew I wanted to open with “Shania” and end on “The Chopping Block.”

Mesha Maren

I feel like faith and religion used to play a much bigger role in daily American life and culture and also in American literature—I’m thinking of folks like Flannery O’Connor. It seems to me that current fiction doesn’t engage with faith and religion as much anymore but in your book, church, the Bible, and God are very important to many of the characters. Can you talk about this aspect?

Ashleigh Bryant Phillips

I can’t speak for Flannery or any other writers out there working in the “American” tradition. All I can say is where I’m from (Northampton County, NC) is designated a Tier 1 county in the state, meaning most highly distressed economically and environmentally. It’s very isolated; there’s more deer than people per square mile. One in every five people lives in poverty. Due to the strain of poverty and isolation which creates inadequate access to the internet, Northampton County public schools don’t perform well, even with Teach For America assistance. And even though there’s no hospital in my county and my cousin who has schizophrenia has to drive an hour and a half to see a specialist, each community in my county has at least 1-2 churches. My hometown has like five. What this says to me is that without financial stability, quality education or healthcare, rural people turn to God for security. As I write this, drug-related crime is also on the rise in Northampton County. Many of my family members’ homes have been broken into over drug-related issues. And I get that too. It seems like the only ways of coping with the stress of isolated rural life is through drugs, alcohol, bad relationships or God. Because there is no money or mental health care coming in to help provide. But every Sunday you’re gonna hear a preacher tell you how the last shall be first in heaven, look up the story of Zaccheus. I’ve seen the power of prayer provide great comfort to my friends and family who don’t have access to any other kinds of “help.” If I didn’t include God in my fiction, I wouldn’t be true to my people or myself.

Mesha Maren

You are writing about a community that is similar to the one in which you grew up in rural northeastern North Carolina and I wanted to ask you about the drive to and process of depicting the place that you come from. There is this great book called Lost Highway about early country music and its roots by Peter Guralnick and in it he’s talking about art that is deeply engraved with a person’s background and experience. He points out that the very urge to make art out of your background and experience separates you from your origin, the fact that you are driven to make art about the place you come from stems from some early alienation, like you have to already be internally kind of alienated from the place you come from to even conceive of making it into art. Guralnick is talking about folks like Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb, and Merle Haggard but I think it’s true of any artist. What do you think about this idea or about place, home and alienation, trying to return to home?

Ashleigh Bryant Phillips

I was always frustrated growing up that I couldn’t find enough people around me who wanted to question things. I got a lot of “We’ll never understand the ways of God” for an answer. So there was some alienation in that sense. I also was very interested in the “high” channels on our TV, where I could find foreign films and MTV2. No one else around me was really all that interested in the “high” channels. So when I went to college where I could go out and try foreign cuisines and see indie rock shows, my world blew right open and I felt a sense of belonging I never had at home. But moreover, at college I was expected to analyze texts and question them. After my MFA I moved back home and in some ways it was like I was seeing home for the first time. I saw how the grocery store on Main Street’s floor was tore all to pieces. How there weren’t a lot of new cars riding around. How a lot of people drank and drank at hunting lodges on weekends as the only “big to-do” to look forward to. And the list goes on and on and on and I’ll never have the home that I had before I went away to college. I’ll never get that home back and it hurts. But I’m glad I got to live at home as an adult. It unlocked another universe for me.

Mesha Maren

Often, in interviews with authors, the interviewer will ask the author about their literary influences. This can sometimes be interesting but I always want to know more about the non-textual influences. As a writer myself I often find that my fiction is more influenced by songs, albums, movies, and visual art than it is by other fiction. Do you have any thoughts on this or want to share any of your non-literary influences?

Ashleigh Bryant Phillips

All my influences are non-literary. It wasn’t until I got an MFA that I learned that writers are expected to be voracious readers. When I wrote my aesthetic statement to pass my MFA program, I had to place my work within the literary tradition of three writers and I tried to argue this idea of textual influence. Of course my advisors said the statement was “off the rails.” My home, its people, and the flat Eastern North Carolina landscape of fields and fields and fields and sky influence me the most. It’s really simple and immersive, kinda like a Rothko of blues and greens in a way. The landscape and people and their stories, that’s what got me to start writing in the first place. The musician Bradford Cox has also done a great deal to help me feel more comfortable being “country” but also “modern” and “artistic.” As well as the visual work of Clemetine Hunter, Mary T Smith, and Minnie Evans.

Mesha Maren

One of the things that makes me feel perpetually hopeful and inspired about the “literary world” is the fact that there is not one single path towards becoming “an author.” I always like to hear different people’s stories of their journeys. Do you mind sharing a little bit about how Sleepovers came to be published?

Ashleigh Bryant Phillips

I took an Intro to Creative Writing class in college and loved it. And it seemed I was good at it too, which also felt nice. My college, Meredith College, didn’t offer anything more than that Intro class at the time, so the English Department awarded me this lil scholarship for Creative Writing and my advisor told me to use that money to enroll in some courses at NC State, which was right across the street. So I did and I don’t know, it just felt like that was what I was supposed to be doing. After that, when it got time to be graduating, my advisor told me I should apply for an MFA and I laughed. I thought there’d be no way in hell I’d ever get into one. But then I did and I just kept writing stories and turned ‘em in for my thesis. Then I moved home to be with my daddy while he passed. After he passed, I found myself stuck there because I had no money to move. I was in such a vulnerable spot. The only house I could afford to rent was an old, old house with no insulation. And I couldn’t talk to anybody around me about my interests. But I got invited to read down in Wilmington, where I’d done my MFA for a school benefit. Donald Antrim and John Jerimiah Sullivan and Wiley Cash were there and after I read they all talked to me like I was a real writer, like they all just figured I already had a book deal or was querying agents. Which none of these were true, I wasn’t even trying. But they sure boosted my confidence that night and Wiley told me to submit to Hub City Press’s C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book Prize, which came with publication and $10,000. And Lord knows I needed the money to get out of that old, old cold house I was living in. So when I got home from that reading, I threw whatever new stories I’d written since I’d been living back home into the old thesis, sent it off, and said a prayer that the judge Lauren Groff would like it. And thankfully she did!

Mesha Maren

My last question for you is a two part question: what are you working on next? And do your ideas mostly come to you in the form of short stories or do you think you’ll write a longer narrative? I ask the first part because I cannot wait to read more of your work and I ask the second part because as a short story writer you do something that I do not see very often: you have an incredible knack for encompassing long narratives—sometimes whole lives—in very short stories. We get huge swaths of Shania and Lorene and other characters’ lives in just a few pages.

Ashleigh Bryant Phillips

It doesn’t feel natural talking about my future work. First of all I find that if I talk about it, it dies. Second of all it invites this whole congregation of people to the table that want something. And while I’m mighty appreciative of the congregation reading my work, I don’t want to think about them at all. Unfortunately publishing leads to this conflict. I find it really debilitating to creation. I’m trying to quiet that congregation because in the end I’m just trying to produce work that excites me and helps me get out what haunts me.

Author’s note: Ashleigh suggests donations to CULTIVATOR, INC, a 501C-3 nonprofit providing greater book access and literacy opportunities to the low-wealth, people of color communities of rural Northeastern North Carolina.

Book cover of Sleepovers

By Ashleigh Bryant Phillips
Hub City Press
Published June 16, 2020

Mesha Maren is the author of the novel Sugar Run (Algonquin Books). Her short stories have appeared in Tin House, Oxford American, The Southern Review, Triquarterly, Crazyhorse and elsewhere. She serves as a National Endowment of the Arts Writing Fellow at the Federal Prison Camp in Alderson, West Virginia and is an Assistant Professor of the Practice of Creative Writing at Duke University.

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