Paying Attention to Human Failure: Peg Alford Pursell Interviewed by Taylor Larsen

The writer on her new collection of seventy-eight stories, lyrical compression, and protecting artistic inner silence.

A Girl Goes Into The Forest

I picked up a copy of Peg Alford Pursell’s first book, Show Her a Flower, A Bird, A Shadow at Litquake and read a paragraph about a starfish that simmered in lyrical prose. It was perfectly crafted and deeply emotional and I remember thinking, I have not ever read anything like this before. I wasn’t surprised to hear it was selected as the 2017 INDIES Book of the Year in Literary Fiction. She is completely doing her own thing and it works. In her latest book, A Girl Goes Into the Forest (Dzanc Books), Pursell amazes by providing seventy-eight hybrid stories and fables that revolve around family sorrow. What makes Pursell’s fiction so effective is her ability to, within the span of a single sentence, provide a deep impression that might take other writers pages to accomplish. Consider her story “Source of the Accident,” which begins: “Her parents were waiting it out in the apses of their mind where everything remained the same and death would come only as an incremental change, or so seemed their hope.” Pursell’s observations of painful moments renders them beautiful. To see so clearly into something so complex is to get relief.

Her tight prose delights and challenges readers to examine the complex meanings inherent in the family dynamic in all stages of life.

—Taylor Larsen


Taylor Larsen What was the genesis of this book and its journey towards publication? You are doing something very unique here; was it a process to find the right editor who would understand your artistic intentions?

Peg Alford Pursell A Girl Goes into the Forest grew into a larger collection of stories from a chapbook originally entitled Unknown Animals, which is the title of one of the stories. That chapbook never quite gelled for me. I felt something wasn’t there yet, and I put the manuscript away for a while, as is my usual process, and I wrote new material. And as is typical with the new stories, I wasn’t sure what they were adding up to but maintained faith in the process. That is, belief that I’d discover the book by writing and learning what my obsessions were. Eventually, I found the new material was in relationship to the stories from the chapbook, and so A Girl Goes into the Forest came into being. My dream publisher for the book was Dzanc Books, so I sent the manuscript there straight away with fingers crossed. You can imagine my joy when Michelle Dotter, the editor-in-chief and publisher, accepted the book for publication. I know how very rare it is for that to happen.

TL There is something deeply emotional about your work. Perhaps it’s your word choice or the moments you choose to explore for the (mostly) female characters in A Girl Goes into the Forest. I would describe your work as quietly brutal. Does that resonate for you?   

PAP I believe once a book is out there it belongs to its readers, to their reactions and responses, however various those may be. The stories don’t look away from tender and painful moments of characters’s lives: the death of a mother, the loss of a daughter. I try to write honestly, and by that I don’t mean factually: the book is fiction, not autobiography. It can be unsettling to confront some aspects of our humanity, but I don’t want to shy away. Often truths—and certainly narrative possibilities—are found in the shadows.

The protagonists are ordinary and live more or less ordinary lives—no spies, bootleggers, racist presidents—hence, quiet. Their quotidian nature belies the inherent dramas of their lives as they try and sometimes, regularly, fail to be better humans.

TL The emotional core of the book does seems to be about how we fail. I have a similar obsession in my own work. What drew you to this idea?

PAP I’ve lived long enough now to realize that not all people have an interest in wanting or trying to be better humans. Why isn’t that an imperative for everyone? I have a vivid memory of my first psychology class in high school freshman year. The teacher explained the concept of self-actualization, saying that he knew few people he would consider self-actualized. Boredom permeated the classroom like a thick smog. But I knew that I wanted to be self-actualized—why wouldn’t everyone? It makes me laugh to think about it now.

So, I think my interest in characters who try and often fail to be better humans originates from early experiences like I mentioned with my thirteen-year-old self in psychology class and my continued fascination with the mind, and where behaviors are rooted. It also extends into a desire to believe that there’s evolution in the collective mind, a hopefulness that means, for example, that empathy is valued. When it comes to writing fiction, characters who struggle make for good dramatic situations, of course. I like those struggles to be nuanced, to involve how characters behave with one another based on their shortcomings and inability to see what seems so obvious to the reader. 

Pap Web 1000 X 1500

Photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

TL  Your style in this book reminds me of a very condensed Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. Hers is more sprawling, while yours is more sculpted. Instead of actual reincarnation though, yours is a symbolic and thematic reincarnation over and over in these beautiful little snapshots of lives caught in particular moments. Is this the effect you were going for?

PAP This is such an interesting comparison. Atkinson’s is a novel with the same characters within those 544 pages, who are reincarnated and appear in various scenarios and situations, while remaining roughly the same characters. A novel, of course, always allows for more “sprawl.” My book is a collection of stories with different protagonists. Each story has its own plot, its own logic. These average and flawed protagonists may in some cases share similar losses and challenges, though not always. For example, I refract the loss of daughters in various stories like “Rust” where an imagined daughter is a loss in a far different way. Likewise, several stories deal with the death of a mother. These losses, which I think more of as transitions in lives lived, constitute my primary “obsessions” in the writing and structuring of this book. 

To speak of the book as sculpted is lovely—thank you—since the process of structuring this book with its seventy-eight stories was as much a creative process as the composition of the stories themselves. Because each story is highly compressed, it was a challenge to arrange them to best effect—how they play off one another while also shaping the effect of accumulation into the greater whole. I had to be aware of using reversals and turns to create rhythm and flow, momentary rests.

TL  I read your other book Show Her a Flower, A Bird, A Shadow, and I was stunned by your prose and the often crisp and startling images. You seem to have mastered the short poetic prose form. Why are you drawn to write shorter pieces instead of longer ones?

PAPI’m not always drawn to writing short—I’ve been working on a novel for many years, for example, and I’ve published a number of stories of traditional length. Some stories in this collection are of traditional length, as well. Yet, I do have an abiding love for compression. I prefer reading writing that is highly compressed, that makes space for me, the reader, to engage, rather than writing that’s didactic and tells me what I should feel or think. I’m drawn to writing that is more hybrid in nature, nonbinary, like in prose poetry, that blurs boundaries we’ve been asked to observe. Short forms seem to most readily hold highly compressed and condensed poetic writing.

TL  This quote from “You Can Do Anything” struck me: “Eventually she grew practiced at transforming her looks of aversion into a kind of determined apathy. But the daily washed-out looks of sadness, her melancholia, are what I remember most about the last of our days together. ‘We’re just not meant to be, Henry.’” How does this relate to the themes you are exploring in your collection?

PAP Yes, poor Henry! How much he suffers as Cecilia begins to transform, a transformation that doesn’t include him. Henry makes various attempts to connect with Cecilia but is unable to in the end. The stories explore the longing characters have for connection, to be known, to be seen. They also investigate the nature of consciousness, what it is to be a human animal aware of oneself, aware of one’s failings and shortcomings, and of one’s mortality. At the story’s end I give Henry hope, which is also thematic in the collection: that hope is found subtly, commensurate with the protagonists’s ability to pay attention.

TLFor a reader who might be intimidated by your sophisticated and unique lyrical style, what would you say to encourage him or her to dive into this collection of stories? It’s meant to be a thematic and sensory experience, right, rather than a logical progression of events?  

PAP Since the book is a collection of stories, I hope a reader understands that each story stands alone, and therefore, won’t expect a logical progression of events. So, setting expectations could be helpful. Certainly, there exist collections of linked stories, and there may be those arranged so as to show a set of characters moving through the individual stories in a chronological or linear fashion.

My book’s been compared to an album of music: in this metaphor, the individual stories are the songs that make up the album. It’s possible to dip into one at a time and take it in, while also finding echoing refrains that add up to create the overarching whole. I tend to obsess over language, its power, and its sound. I care about the line and how it falls. Rhythm is important. In arranging the collection, I consciously build in breaks for the reader, natural resting places, as in a composition of music. Perhaps a reader can feel confident in knowing that to read one or two stories at a time is a fine method.

TL How do you balance artistic expression with promoting your work?

PAP I struggle with the selves that I must put out in the world while also guarding my inner silence, as I imagine most artists must. It’s difficult to strike a balance between living in this world with all its distractions and traumas, including having to promote a book (okay, that’s a micro-trauma), and cultivating my creative self, from which I write. I’m not sure it’s possible to find balance, but it’s not possible to continue to make art without that. To take care of that part of myself is important only to me, essentially. The world doesn’t care! And that can make it harder to insist upon, even if the insisting is only to myself.

I maintain a strong writing practice. Each morning I write first thing. This is the structure I’ve built for myself over the years, this space of keeping out all other distractions. I know that not everyone believes in or needs that daily ritual, but I count on it. I don’t have to argue with myself about the value of cultivating my inner silence, which used to happen. It’s there, waiting for me. Someone—I wish I remember who—likened this approach to feeding the baby: there’s no argument about giving sustenance to an infant dependent upon you for its survival.

At the same time, my literary community and the larger community that I live within are important too. My participation feeds the work; I have to be a writer in the world as much as belonging to myself. Promoting a book is difficult because, as Samantha Chang noted in a speech given to a graduating MFA class a couple years ago, the finished product is mute about itself. “The writer has given us this piece of his interior and there is frequently no explanation, nothing to be said about it. Often, the writer himself has very little idea of what he has created.” Yet the writer is expected not only to know precisely but to be able to articulate that understanding. It’s no wonder that some writers opt out of promotion.

TL You run the fantastic reading series, Why There Are Words (WTAW), and are an active literary citizen. Which writers have you come across in recent years who thrill you and have influenced your work?

PAP I’m smitten with Devi Laskar’s books and writing. We share a love of compression and a background in poetry—I first met her when she just published her chapbook Gas & Lodging, No Lodging and knew, after reading the book, I would invite her to read at the series. Since then, she published the deservedly acclaimed The Atlas of Reds and Blues. In this book, she employs a technique that I do as well, that of using an unnamed narrator. We seem to be writing in some parallel ways, and I have no doubt that I would consider her writing an influence if she’d have published her novel years before I published this book.

Likewise with Sophia Shalmiyev’s Mother Winter. I can’t stop talking about this book! Nominally, it’s a memoir, but like Laskar’s novel, it’s written in non-linear, compressed, lyrical, and original language. It’s simply dazzling and I can’t wait to see what Shalmiyev does next. I’ll continue to savor Mother Winter in the meanwhile, it’s that dense and rich. If I ever were to consider writing memoir, I would look to this book as a guide.

There are so many exciting books and writers who pass through the reading series, and for every one of them, an exponential abundance more. If only I’d ever have been able to hear Virginia Woolf read! I think of her as a true abiding influence. We’ve all had the experience of returning to books we earlier thought the world of only to discover they no longer hold up, but I’ve never felt let down by any of Woolf’s books. 

Taylor Larsen is the author of Stranger, Father, Beloved. A graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program, she currently teaches fiction writing for Catapult and for Concordia St. Paul’s MFA program. Her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Literary Hub, The Rumpus, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

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