12.1 | Interview

Lili Gourley

An Interview With Sarah Freligh

Sarah Freligh is the author of five books, including Sad Math, winner of the 2014 Moon City Press Poetry Prize and the 2015 Whirling Prize from the University of Indianapolis, and A Brief Natural History of Women, published in 2023 by Harbor Editions. Recent work has appeared in the Cincinnati Review miCRo series, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Sun magazine, the Wigleaf 50, and in the anthologies New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (Norton 2018), Best Microfiction (2019-22), and Best Small Fiction 2022.

Among her awards are poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Saltonstall Foundation.

Gandy Dancer: A Brief Natural History of Women is an urgent and evocative collection of flash fiction that spans fifty pages. Grief, societal expectation, and rebellion against them are just a few of the many complications of womanhood woven throughout this collection. Can you talk about the challenges of writing such harsh truths?

Thank you for those kind words about my book; it’s most appreciated. I started many of these stories in the early days of the pandemic, during a very quiet time in the world and in my life, so it was relatively easy to slip under and into the odd kind of reality that fiction requires. That initial silence would be punctured by the very noisy election and the aftermath, an unease that continued into the summer of 2022 when Roe v. Wade was overturned. I’m thinking that’s maybe where the undertone of grief comes from: the notion that women are little more than vessels in which to conceive and bear children. So while my stories aren’t overtly political, the characters in them are women of varying ages at various times who are bumping up against this reality in some way of who am I, and what am I worth?

Gandy Dancer: Your title, A Brief Natural History of Women, has a very absolute tone about it—an assuredness. What drew you to this title? Was it a long process or did it come to you quickly?

Again, thanks so much for that as titles are very hard for me, especially book titles. In fact, the title of my last book of poetry, Sad Math, was gifted to me by a friend, a very good titologist. For this book, it was only after writing one of the later stories, A Brief Natural History of the Girls in the Office, that it occurred to me that one of the recurring tropes of the book is women at varying stages of their personal histories, as well as in the larger history of the world, from mid-twentieth century onward. A Brief Natural History of Women felt like a large enough container in which to put in all these characters, all their stories.

Gandy Dancer: Several of these stories employ the second person point of view, like the opening piece, “You Come Here Often,” and farther in with “A Brief Natural History of the Automobile.” This point of view is fairly rare. What makes it a good choice for these stories?

“You Come Here Often” began in second person and stayed that way, which doesn’t always happen. I love revision, love trying on different points of view during revision. But the second person felt right for the subject matter—the narrator’s reckoning with a brother’s violent death—for how it provided a natural and necessary distance between the narrator and the subject matter, but also for how it collapsed the distance between narrator and reader. “You” becomes every reader; her tragedy is ours.

Conversely, nothing about “A Brief Natural History of the Automobile” came easily. I began writing “ABNHOTA” in the late nineties; the reason I know this is because I found an early version of the story in some electronic files that were pulled off a long-ago desktop computer—a GIGANTIC HP that took up my entire studio apartment—and the address on the story was that same studio apartment. So I must have been sending the story out for possible publication and eventual rejection.

Every couple years or so, I’d go back to the story and fool around with it. I started by spatchcocking the narrative into fragments and switching up the point of view from first to second, which felt much more doable, more sustainable, in fragments. In the fall of 2021, I was taking an online workshop with Sara Lippmann and I volunteered, dumbly, to hand out for the first round of critiques. This was a week before class started and I had nada, zip as far as anything prepped and ready and so I dove into some old files and unearthed this story. I’d written poetry for a number of years by that time and was able to see how the metaphor of the car could be expanded to encompass the entirety of the narrator’s life—i.e., she IS the car—and how that, in turn, allowed me to understand the change that’s vital to a story: She’s driven, but ultimately she gets to drive. I did a quick revision and the version that I handed out to the class was very similar to the story that Smokelong eventually published, the version that’s in the book.

Gandy Dancer: As mentioned, A Brief Natural History of Women is a collection of flash fiction. There are, however, clear signs of your background writing poetry. Pieces like “Saginaw,” and “Skinny Dip” read like prose poetry in their brevity and alliteration. How do you know if you’re writing a poem or a flash story? How is the process different for you?

I see prose poetry and micro/flash fiction as a Venn diagram of intersections and differences. Those particular micros share lyric qualities with poetry, but ultimately they’re stories—very, very short stories, but stories, nevertheless. My favorite definition of a story is that it’s “a container for change” and in both those stories, something or someone changes from beginning to end—which doesn’t necessarily happen in a prose poem. A prose poem is fueled by language and sound; a story is fueled by causality and change.

Gandy Dancer: This book provides vivid glimpses into women’s lives. Of course, fiction is imagined, but more often than not, fiction is rooted in some kind of lived experience. Did you take inspiration exclusively from your own life? Or was this a culmination of shared stories and experiences from women you know?

A little of both, really. Early on, most of my stories were narrated by a character who was a little too much like me to be fictional. What might have been—what very well could have been—compelling fiction got mired in the cement boots of THIS REALLY HAPPENED. I didn’t know enough yet to bend or abandon reality for the sake of story and because of that, the characters in my early stories never really get shook up and turned inside out emotionally, because who would do that to themselves? Janet Burroway famously wrote that in fiction, “only trouble is interesting,” but at the time, the only trouble I wanted to encounter in my daily life was my checkbook being off a penny or two. As long as the character was a thinly veiled version of me, I couldn’t let go and go there, go into the land of verisimilitude, the appearance of truth, where all fiction must live. And so, no story.

The more I write, the more I trust the imagination. I may think I have nothing when I sit down to write, but thinking isn’t writing. I start typing or writing words in a notebook and find I’m writing about people I know but don’t really know yet, and so I keep writing until I do. I’m writing, too, from a vantage point of being pretty settled in my life, so that I welcome any and all fictional mayhem. That’s important, the old Flaubert dictum to be “regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

Gandy Dancer: This collection has twenty-three individual flash stories. Was finding an order or sequence for the stories difficult? Did you need to omit some stories that ended up not that fitting with the rest? Or did you find yourself writing more stories to fill in gaps? Along those lines, what does your revision process look like? Did it continue while you shaped A Brief Natural History of Women?

Ordering this particular collection of short stories was much like ordering a book of poetry. There’s no clear narrative arc, no through question as in a novel, but a collection of short stories—like a poetry collection—has to start someplace for the reader and that’s up to the writer to decide. Natasha Sajé in her fantastic article “Dynamic Design: The Structure of Books of Poems,” talks about “gesture” from the Latin “to carry” as a trope for organizing a book, that is, “How does the book carry itself, and how does it move the reader?” A great example of how a book’s organization affects the reader’s journey is Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, specifically the two versions, which—because of the order of the poems and the poems included—offer up two very different experiences for the reader.

The reader enters A Brief Natural History with “You Come Here Often,” a story in which the narrator is still very much mired in grief about the recent, violent death of her brother, and ends with “Mad,” a story in which the narrator, who may or may not be the same character as in the first story, is confronting that grief during a therapy session. There’s been movement, then, toward a light, but we get the sense that she’s still fumbling for the switch.

While there’s not a definitive narrative arc in a collection of short stories, there’s definitely a hint of a thematic spine here, much of it related to the age of the narrators: the reflective stories like “A Brief History of Lipstick” versus a story like “A Brief Natural History of the Girls in the Office” in which narrators age together over a lifetime of work. This trope only became clear when I started organizing the stories and I did write a few stories to fill what I saw were gaps in this dotted line of a narrative arc, as well as omitted a whole bunch. Lately, I’ve been writing speculative fiction based around climate change and what that’s doing to the oceans and how we’re all going to have to swim or die, but those stories are going to have to wait for the next collection, I guess.

Gandy Dancer: Finally, do you have a favorite story in this book? Are there any that surprised you during the writing or revision? What do you hope your reader gets out of A Brief Natural History of Women?

I like reading “Skinny Dip” a lot. I’m fond of “A Brief Natural History of the Girls in the Office,” because I admire their spunk and would love to go bowling with them and hang around for the after-bowl, and mostly because while writing that story, I started to see the collection as a whole, rather than individual stories.

As far as revision surprises, there are always surprises and many of them. Revision is really where the writing takes place, the discovery of the “about-ness” of something and how each detail, each action, how all the elements are rowing together toward that unity. Once those are nailed down, I can mess with the words—for sound, for image, for surprise. I read each story out loud to my cat Stewie, who blinks. I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad.

Ultimately, I hope the reader will realize the richness of the short form. I don’t want to leave the reader wanting more; I want what I give them in this book to be more than enough.