Interview with Ashley Blooms

Novelist Ashley Blooms grew up in eastern Kentucky in Cutshin. The Cutshin Creek watershed covers eastern Leslie County where the land is rural and wooded. A similar geography appears in her debut novel, Every Bone a Prayer (Sourcebooks), released in August, 2020. Ashley is a graduate of the Clarion Workshop and the MFA program at University of Mississippi, where she attended as the John and Renee Grisham Fellow.  

Her debut novel was met with critical acclaim. NPR said Every Bone a Prayer “bears within its pages striking beauty and strangeness in equal measure.” Booklist praised the novel as a “haunting debut” that “makes a mystical exploration of the hidden power that lies within and the strategies assault survivors can undertake to regain a feeling of ownership over body and mind.” Ashley’s novel is part coming-of-age, part thriller, part fabulism, but also an honest (and often painful) examination of childhood abuse and trauma that is rendered in memorable storytelling and poetic prose.

Ashley’s work has appeared in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & HorrorFantasy & Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, and Oxford American, among other places. She currently lives in Kentucky with her partner and dog, where she is at work on her second novel. Still: The Journal is honored to feature an excerpt from that novel in this issue. She tweets occasionally @ashleyblooms 

We recently visited with Ashley Blooms via email where she answered our questions about place, language, religion, and themes in Appalachian storytelling. She was also patient enough to endure the question we’ve asked a lot lately: What’s it been like to release a book during a global pandemic?

Still: The Journal:  You’re a graduate of both the prestigious Clarion Workshop and a traditional MFA program. Could you talk a little about how your training in these programs benefited you as a writer?

Ashley Blooms:   I’m definitely one of those people who could be a perennial student. I really enjoy learning in all kinds of classroom environments even with all the frustrations that can attend them. And after I graduated with my bachelor’s from EKU, I still felt like I had so much more to learn, so applying for MFAs felt like the natural next step. Those three years at Mississippi gave me, more than anything, the time and space to take myself seriously as a writer. To really imagine and make a plan for what a creative life would look like for me. It taught me how to sift through various opinions on my work and how to find my own voice amongst others, how to meet deadlines and how to manage my time and expectations. And it introduced me to so many incredible writers, many of whom I’m still in touch with, and one of whom I very happily married. But my work is such a blend of different genres—including literary realism, fantasy, horror—and while I wrote in those genres during my MFA I still wondered what it would be like to be in a workshop environment comprised only of folks writing speculative stories. So, I attended Clarion about two months after I graduated with my MFA. Clarion is an incredibly intensive program, very concentrated, and I was absolutely exhausted most of the time, but it was also really wonderful. There’s definitely an almost manic feeling in the air at times, because you’re drafting stories every week and reading tens of thousands of words of fiction every night, and you’re being spurred on by all this amazing work and these incredible instructors. And because of the time constraints, I often had to get out of my own way and just write. The inner critics couldn’t keep up with the Clarion pace so I tried things I wouldn’t have tried before and went for stories I’d avoided in the past. It was freeing, in a way, as well as challenging. So the MFA and Clarion were very different experiences, but I feel like I grew from both of them tremendously. 

Still:   You’ve been asked this question before, but because we publish writers and artists with some connection to Appalachia, we’ll ask you to talk about how place has influenced your work, especially since you gravitate toward fantasy in your writing. What are some aspects about being raised in eastern Kentucky that lend themselves to the fantastical?

AB:   I feel like eastern Kentucky is absolutely brimming with magic. I think that’s one of the reasons I love to write speculative fiction set here because I’m not sure that everyone can see what I see when I look at my home. I attribute that perspective to a lot of things, like the storytellers in my own family. Growing up, I heard all kinds of stories about people I knew and people long dead—about the time Papaw saw a ghost at the bend in the road and that woman in the holler who hid gold bars under her floors and that distant uncle who murdered his wife. Characters were all around me, and many of their stories were unfinished or had gaps in them where people disagreed—all these empty or contested spaces just waiting for someone to come along and piece them together. And there’s such a fascinating mix of religion and folklore and superstition at home—my grandparents kept a family Bible in the living room but Papaw would also sign the cross when a black cat crossed his path and we weren’t allowed to play in the creek during the dog days (though I’m still not entirely sure which days are canine and which are not). Even coal mining is strange. I watched my father leave home early in the morning, clean face and slick hair, and then return covered in coal dust, his clothes coated with earth, like he was slowly turning into the mountain he mined. Then I grew up and learned what black lung was and how the dust literally gets inside the miners, becomes a part of them. Doesn’t that sound like a spell to you? Some awful magic? My world felt laced with strangeness, like the boundaries that shaped the regular world were really more like suggestions. I don’t have to look far at all for strange and wonderful stories in these hills. 
Still:   A similar question, then: You’ve written before about your experiences in the Holiness church. Could you talk about how those experiences inform your life as a writer?

AB:  I think I’m still untangling the impact that being raised Pentecostal has had on me and my work. The church was such a staple of my childhood, so it only makes sense that it’s going to appear in my writing, and especially when those early experiences were so unique. As a child I regularly watched the people in my life become something else inside that church. One moment preaching, the next stomping the ground, dancing, calling out in a language I couldn’t understand. Women would writhe in their seats, heads tossed back, hands balled into fists. People running down the aisles, shouting, sometimes screaming. All because they had been touched by the Holy Ghost. That’s what it meant to commune with something divine—to be reshaped, remade. 

I see those experiences all over my work. Not just in the explicit ways, although I do often write characters who are faithful, or struggling with their faith, or who are adjacent to the church. But I also see it in the way I write about bodies as permeable things always on the cusp of transformation and in the way that my characters are often faced with forces beyond their reckoning and how they never walk away from these encounters unchanged. I even feel it in my language at times—this kind of build, this rhythm, like a preacher reaching the height of their sermon. I haven’t attended church since I was a teenager, but I think its influence is still with me now, and with my work. 

Still:   We used the words “fantasy” and “fantastical” above to describe some of the elements in Every Bone a Prayer, but in other interviews, you’ve said your writing is more closely aligned to “fabulism” or “slipstream.”  Could you clarify these genre terms for our readers within the context of your own work?

AB:   I’m pretty general with the terms I use to describe my work—fantasy, fantastical, fabulism, slipstream, any of those feel fine to me. The only term I don’t personally use is magical realism, which seems to be the dominant term for work that blurs reality and the term that most people are familiar with. But, from my understanding, magical realism or magic realism was originated by Latin American authors who often used the genre as a tool of subversion against colonization. It’s a term and a genre that has a very specific history and resonance that I simply can’t claim. 

Still:   We admired how you so carefully (and slowly) reveal time and place and worldview through objects in Every Bone a Prayer (a cordless phone, strip mining, doing housework in a denim skirt) but on the other hand, the fantastical is introduced almost immediately. What was your process in thinking about how to juxtapose the reality and the magic in your story?

AB:   In most cases I like to think of the fantastical elements in my work like dandelions growing up through a sidewalk—they’re elements that emerge naturally from the world, even in places we least expect them, or places they didn’t first belong—magic like a weed. Sometimes that means I have an idea I want to toy with—like ghosts—and then I think about what themes or story or character would exist around that idea. What do ghosts mean? What do they represent? What do they evoke? And sometimes it goes in the opposite direction, finding the character or world first and then seeing what kind of magic emerges from that particular blend of personalities, desires, dreams. And sometimes they come together for me—a character and their ability, a world and its magic. The same was true for Every Bone a Prayer. I don’t consider the fantastical elements separately from the reality because, for me, they’re twined together from the very beginning, and then it just becomes a process of building them alongside one another, revealing them both a little at a time. 

Still:   Misty, the main character in your novel, is so complex for a 10-year-old! One of her many gifts is being able to hear the energy and inner life—the stories—of both living creatures and inanimate objects. Tell us about the origins of the idea of granting Misty this gift, which really is one of the guiding forces of the whole novel.

AB:   Similar to what I said above, my magic systems often emerge from or are tied to character and theme. The fantastical is a tool I can use to explode an idea, to see it from many angles at once, to complicate something that’s already happening in the book, or to introduce new elements. For Every Bone a Prayer one of the major themes I knew I would explore was the way that trauma shapes identity, so I wanted a magic that seemed to emerge naturally from Misty, her life, and what the story was trying to say. The idea of names seemed like the perfect fit—a way to examine what makes us who we are and how those things change when we experience trauma, loss of autonomy, shame. And then, how we recover, how that identity heals or changes, and how we heal and change along with it.

“Inside, [Misty] heard the whispers of Jem’s furniture, most of which were hand-me-downs from family or bought secondhand. The dresser’s voice creaked like a rusty hinge, and the headboard sighed and scolded the curtains, which were eaten up by moth holes on one side. The side tables shared a story back and forth about the day they came to Jem’s but neither of them remembered it quite the same way.”  ~from
Every Bone a Prayer by Ashley Blooms

Still: The Journal:   One of the themes you explore in your novel is female liberation: from the body, from patriarchal religion, from shame, from names, even. What’s your process or your thinking about how themes manifest themselves in long works like a novel? Do you intentionally set about exploring or invoking particular themes or is it more organic for you?

Ashley Blooms:   I’ve found that I often have an idea of what I’m trying to say, especially thematically, when I begin a novel. Often a very clear idea that I feel very confident about. Sadly, that usually doesn’t last very long. That idea fades or gets lost entirely somewhere in the writing, but then comes back to me near the end. Sometimes it feels like I have to write the book before I can see the book. And then once I see what I was really trying to say all along, revision helps me bring that out, make better choices, change scenes and dialogue to tease and complicate the idea. I love to show themes that are complicated—to say, yes but what if… so what does female liberation look like for a single mother? for a woman in an imbalanced marriage? for little girls? for queer folk? The answer will be different for each, and I like to explore some of that.  

Still:    Another aspect of your novel that we admired was how your characters talk. You use dialect in such subtle ways. The dialect not only grounds the novel in place but also keeps your story from becoming stereotypical. One of the words that you play with over and over in the novel is “quare.” Talk to us about your use of that word throughout the novel.

AB:   I take such enormous joy in writing with dialect and in examining not just the words I’m familiar with from home but the syntax and grammar and particular rhythms of speech. As such, I’ve wanted to write about the word quare for a while and Every Bone a Prayer felt like the perfect home for it as the novel deals so much with the fluidity of identity. The names that Misty uses are layered and shifting with pieces falling in and out of place. This isn’t a fixed or static magic. There is no single true name for anything that is eternal or unchanging. We also see how names can be manipulated and weaponized, but that manipulation has a cost. Calling something outside its true name is violent and it will eventually harm, or even outright kill, the thing that is being misnamed. 

For me, this whole fluid system of magic is very queer. And quare, as a word, was also incredibly fluid in my experience. It could be, at times, just a word to mean strange or weird and was applied to people and animals and places. But it also had an undertone that was used very specifically toward people who didn’t fit the expected gender roles or sexuality of the folks who hold power. That use was quiet but sinister. It meant other, outsider, threat. It meant breaking with the norm and that breaking was not a good thing. Growing up I was deeply closeted and incredibly uncomfortable with my own queerness so that word always cut through conversation. It felt like an accusation. 

These issues are reflected in Misty’s cousins, Jerry and Sam, whom she’s very close with. The reader can see their experiences trying to make their authentic identity fit with the expectations of their community and finding that the pieces don’t always add up. There’s a point near the end of the novel where the cousins discuss the meaning of the word quare and how it doesn’t sound like it should mean something bad at all. It’s a conversation about belonging and what it means to claim a place as home that doesn’t always want to claim you in return. And one of the amazing things about language (and names and identity) is that their meaning can change over time and be reclaimed by those who were harmed by the language in the first place. Quare could be used to hurt but it could also be used as a kind of armor or even a challenge. In the right hands, quare could be beautiful and strange, no longer something to be ashamed of, but something to hold onto, even be proud of. It’s that complicated kind of identity that the whole book is trying to be in conversation with: an identity that isn’t fixed but always in flux, not hiding from the harmful parts but not ignoring the joyful parts either. 

Still:   This complication of names and identities and experiences in rural place is one of many reasons we admired Every Bone A Prayer so much. So, here's a more mundane (and probably expected) question: What was it like for you to release your debut novel during a global pandemic? Pros and cons?

AB:   Oh boy. To begin, the pandemic was really just starting to gain attention while I was at the Public Library Association Conference doing my very first promotional events. At that point no one really knew what was happening, and I had no idea that those early events would be the last events I did for Every Bone a Prayer in person. So I feel grateful that I got a chance to do that, but I definitely went through a period of mourning when it became clear that I wouldn’t have the debut experience I had hoped for. I’d spent years imagining what it would be like when I finally published a novel, and I had to let go of that. It wasn’t easy, though it was also hard to feel sad when there was so much other suffering and uncertainty going on in the world. So it was hard in those early months as we all tried to pivot our entire lives around these changes. I felt incredibly lucky to be working with Sourcebooks because the team immediately started making other arrangements and making sure that my novel would still make its way into the world no matter what was going on. So I still got to debut, even if it was on Zoom. I still got to hold my debut novel in my hands, talk to people who were excited about my book, and answer their thoughtful questions. I also got to do all this from the comfort of my home, where I was lucky enough to do what I loved while also staying safe, which was and is such a privilege. So it hasn’t been what I may have dreamed about all those years ago, but I can’t help but feel incredibly grateful anyway. 

Still:   We’re including an excerpt from your next novel in this issue of Still: The Journal. What do you want us to know about that new work? When do you anticipate the novel will be ready for publication?

AB:   As of right now my second novel, Where I Can’t Follow, should be in the world just about a year from now, in early 2022, though it’s possible that will change. It’s a book that, like Every Bone a Prayer, focuses on the entangled lives of women, generational inheritance, how we cope with trauma, and how we move forward. It’s a book that deals with addiction and escape and grief, being stuck and getting unstuck. It’s about love, too, that comes from an old friendship, learning how to change and become the person you want to be and also to let the people you love change and become who they want to be. It’s hard, at times, but also very hopeful, because I think that’s the intersection where I like to write. 

I’m really excited to share the first few chapters with y’all now! 

Read an excerpt from Ashley Blooms' forthcoming novel, Where I Can't Follow


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