To Be Young in This World Can be a Midnight Trek: An Interview with Rosie Forrest

As I prepared to interview Rosie Forrest, I realized my ex-girlfriend still had my copy of the author’s Ghost Box Evolution in Cadillac, Michigan, recent winner of the Ninth Annual Rose Metal Press Short Short Chapbook Contest.

My ex and I had attended the collection’s launch party, and in the weeks that followed, as we argued, got quiet, packed up socks and cell phone chargers, the book was left behind.

It all makes some kind of cosmic literary sense.

Ghost Box Evolution is a haunting collection of vignettes, where everyday objects like rocking horses and straw wrappers become holy, and physical description stands in for the silent longing of young characters.51BRmecNl8L._SX442_BO1,204,203,200_

“I have learned to lean against a screen so that my bare shoulder grazes the wire weave. I have watched [my mother] start and end relationships this way, sometimes at this very door, and once in the most beautiful white dress.”

Stories from Ghost Box Evolution have appeared in Hobart, Wigleaf, Word Riot, and elsewhere. Forrest lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she teaches for Vanderbilt University in a variety of capacities and is the Assistant Director of Academic Residential Programs with Vanderbilt Programs for Talented Youth.

Forrest and I each earned MFAs from the University of New Hampshire, and even though we missed each other by a year, we shared many classmates and professors, and again, as we emailed about her book, I enjoyed the beauty of the past and present, the known and unknown coming together.

David Bersell: I listened to your interview with the KMSU Weekly Reader, where you described the characters in your book as “young people pushing back against their world.” Landscape does so much, serves as a kind of map for the wants and needs of the adolescents in your pieces—I’m thinking about the “snail shell” of a houseboat in “Unmoored.” Could you write a little bit about where and how you grew up? What did you push against?

Rosie Forrest: No question my life’s fair game when I’m writing, but I’m more often pulling at moments and images, not full-blown events. Like the narrator in “Bless This Home,” I had a collection of those tiny, Hallmark animals glued to card stock. And like in “Possum Kingdom,” I sprinted alongside a barbed wire fence in August, racing the neighbors’ shaggy ponies. But maybe to start I can talk about being an only child, and not because I think it’s anything so terrible, but I do think it gives way to a certain kind of loneliness mixed with necessary imagination. I’ve joked with friends about my “only child games.” They go something like this: 1) creating a rhythm and dialing all the phone numbers I had memorized on a push pad without breaking the rhythm, or 2) my Crayola box of 64 crayons, holding a crayon in my fist with only the ends poking out, guessing the exact name of that color. There are more, but you get the gist. A battle against the self and time (not that I would have called it that when I was seven). And then, sure, I had my share of childhood drama, like everyone. Divorce, artistic parents, a bevy of stepfathers, bolting out of a piano recital, western Maryland country roads, feral summer camps, all-girls boarding school, but I suppose my point is that just to be young in this world can be a midnight trek, and maybe what’s pushed back against more than anything else is the self—who you are and how you want to be seen. I love writing about young people because they’re so damn smart. They are the purest observers, and they make connections that as adults, we’re often too bogged down in minutia to see.

DB: The stories in your book share a specific lyric quality and mood, eerie but often hopeful in the same breath. The last line from “The Field, a Religion”: “The families learned to revere and resent the space between [their homes], a space both ancient and visionary, where the model of what had once been and what would never be melted like hot metal and cooled and reformed and melted again, molten and steel, until it was some kind of god.” Your voice made me think of the short story writer Jodi Angel and The Virgin Suicides. What books did you keep close as inspiration or reference points during the writing process?

RF: Ah, so funny you mention The Virgin Suicides. That book captured me full-on with its power of the “we.” I’ve played with it ever since. “We” feels big like the universe, a voice for a whole era. And with that novel, talk about young people as voyeurs, interpreters, and archivists. I do write with books at my fingertips. I’m not reading them so much for story but more for sentence structure or pace or narrative leaps. Bonnie Jo Campbell is a forever favorite, and I think I go to her collection American Salvage more than any other. Pam Houston’s sense of the wild. For mood and that eerie flat affect, I’ve got Joy Williams (Honored Guest) and I can’t not say O’Connor because she’s the master of danger lurking. But music, too, plays a role, and more accidentally-than-on-purpose artist—like in this case, Rachel’s—provided unexpected help, a palette, even. Oh, and Justin Torres, another story guide, for sure.

DB: Your list of writers reminds me why I love flash fiction (and nonfiction). Stylish, efficient language, authority of voice, swift action. How did you get into short shorts and what other flash writers should people check out?

RF: I’ll be honest (and this is not something I say out loud), but if I could do my MFA program over again, I think I’d nerve up and go for poetry. I know, I know. It’s not too late. But that secret is completely tied to my love of flash fiction. I get obsessed with phrases and images, the sounds popping inside a final line, a line that can turn a whole premise on its head. When did I first encounter short shorts? It wasn’t all that long ago. I knew some by author at first. Stuart Dybek, Amy Hempl, Lydia Davis. When I was assigned a 500-word piece in a personal essay class at UNH, I dug the precision of it—like constructing a model airplane (I imagine). I memorized every edge of that first piece, and I spent hours combing the language, and—I’m just considering this now—I think I relished seeing the whole piece on a single page, as though it were an object with texture and shape. I still read those same writers, masters, I’d call them. But I’ve added a few to the mix. Kathy Fish, Amber Sparks, Ron Carlson has a super fun flash/poetry collection called The Blue Box. 

DB: I keep returning to your story “What Happened on Wednesdays (as Told by Someone Who Probably Wasn’t There).” It starts, “On Wednesdays they played dead because Jesse had a basement that was good for morbid games.” I don’t think I will ever lose the image of the various characters, curled, wedged, or facedown, scattered around the basement. How did the story’s concept originate? Were you temped to write a longer version of this or any piece from the collection?

RF: For me, many stories—long or short—begin with a first line. If I’m not excited by that first shot out of the gate, it’s hard to move forward. But the purpose of that first line can be rooted in a sound, a line of dialogue, a sense of place, anything. I hear that first line, and usually, despite all kinds of revision to the piece overall, that first line doesn’t change. The concept itself? I wish I could say something specific. A personal experience or an anecdote I overhead. Maybe it stems from my Edward Gorey admiration, a modern day take? I remember thinking about spaces away from adults that teenagers inhabit and own, and my own love of games with intricate rules—the rules almost rivaling the game itself. In 7th grade, my close friends and I concocted a game we called “The Bathroom Game,” for lack of a more creative name. We turned out the lights in the middle school bathroom, so without windows it was pitch black. A girl or two or three would have five minutes to hide, standing on a toilet or balancing on a stall divider. Another girl would enter the space and simply have to find the ones hiding in the darkness. An elaborate hide ‘n’ seek. Blindness felt dangerous, and we played it during study hall—something else forbidden. I remember the adrenaline, and how very seriously we regarded our kingdom.

But your last question is something I consider all the time, and I wonder if my answer is in part what draws me to flash. To be completely honest, I don’t think about extending my short pieces. Sometimes I think that I should. Sometimes I believe I’m supposed to. The thing is, I love drilling into a small bit of earth, and if I manage to poke through, getting to peer into the world that lies below. If I chisel more, or widen that portal, I worry that the whole ground could collapse beneath me. Does that make sense? If given the choice, I would always prefer to move to a new plot of land and begin to dig all over again.

DB: To wrap up, I’m curious to hear about how you balance your time, not just between your job and writing, but also how you divide those sacred writing hours, between new work, revision, submission, sustaining relationships with peers, promotion, etc.

Like you, I work a demanding, fulfilling job, and time/energy is a constant struggle. Any tips?

RF: I wish I had a magic answer. I don’t write every day. I don’t have a routine. More often than not I’m mad at myself for not writing more. This runs counter to what I tell students. “Write every day!” “Establish a routine!” “But whatever you do, don’t beat yourself up.” What I have learned over the years is that I write best when I’m fulfilled in my daily work, when I’m busy, and when I’m hunting for that single hour in the day. After graduate school I spent three months on a mountain top in southern Italy, where my mother lives half the year. It doesn’t get more idyllic than that. Rustic. Private. Foreign. And in all that time, I wrote a single, mediocre story. The problem? There was always time. There was always a “later.” So my tips? Figure out what you need. Not what you should need or what sounds writerly. It might run counter to what you have been told is the way to write. And that’s the good news. There is no right way. If you’re writing, you’ve found it.

David Bersell’s essays have appeared in Carolina Quarterly, Harpur Palate, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He lives in Nashvillle, Tennessee. 

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