Q&A with Gail Aronson, author of “Silk”

Gail Aronson’s “Silk” was published in The Offing’s Fiction department on February 5, 2018. Q&A conducted by Jax NTP, Assistant Editor, Fiction, and Megan Giddings, Editor, Fiction.

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Jax NTP: How much poetry and format play did the first-person collective point-of-view elicit for you during composition?

Gail Aronson: First of all, thank you for these great questions. While I’ve always had a sensibility that favors blending prose and poetry in my work, with this story especially I did feel it was useful to play with format in order to cast a sense of strangeness onto the circumstances for the characters. The story is very much about friendship and there is an intentional meddling with identity between the two girls. With the formatting play throughout, I wanted to show both a tangible confusion, of which girl was which, and give some physical circularity to the scenes at the sewer and how the girls felt when they sat together. I saw the first-person collective as an opportunity to de-familiarize the reader and blend the characters’ perspectives while adding to the strange magic they experienced together. I was also interested in abstracting the way time functions in the story, and the line breaks served as a mode to make these more impressionistic chronological moves at the ending.

JNTP: The listing of objects from “our mothers” is magical in its ability to defamiliarize the reader. What kind of emotional response were you trying to spool from the audience? How many of your daily totems end up in your writing?

GA: In a different draft of this story, the objects the girls placed on the sewer weren’t directly associated with their mothers, and were rather, simply items they found on the street. I’m glad you bring up the specificity of these items and their strangeness, because I came to realize that this piece was very concerned with gender and sexuality, the process of growing up, and the natural uncertainty inherent in how we come to know ourselves, which I think is often through these small memories and objects that we can’t explain why and how they stick with us as they do.

I did want the items such as lipstick and cigarettes to reveal little glimpses into how the girls see their mothers. As a child, I remember narrowing in on specific details about adults and really focusing on the little things, and it all felt very strange to me. I remember the colors and patterns of wrapped bars of soap in the bathroom, the shape and size of my mother’s makeup case. I love how strangely specific these items and memories become, and how inconsequential it all seems. Why remember a makeup case? For me, the way objects can come to symbolize or embody someone and mean home in the same way as a certain kind of smell or way the sidewalk is cracked (or a certain sewer top!) the details that make things home are fascinating, especially from a youthful perspective. I really wanted the reader to feel that sense of the girls’ separation from their mothers and also an acute familiarity in the way they notice these details, like a faraway dream. I love to use small commonplace items and imbue them with special significance, like a tube of lipstick or a sparkly candle from the dollar store. As a girl, I always thought that the magical only happened in faraway places to the wealthiest people, so I love the idea of taking something that signifies inherited wealth and enchantment like fairy dust and reimagining that into the glitter of that candle you notice when you’re in the aisles of Dollar General or even looking at the same street you’ve seen again and again, but maybe this time there’s a glint in the pavement or something washed in from the rain. I’ve always been a collector of little things — a glass pineapple-shaped perfume bottle, broken dyed eggshells, buckeyes from the Midwest, and colorfully-patterned pillboxes all circulate around on the tabletops of my apartment, and tend to make their way into my work on the page, too. I like to attach special meaning to small things, just like I want to speak about magic in common settings, or places you wouldn’t expect to find it.

JNTP: “Men build a shopping plaza./Our mothers have funerals; we see them buried from the sky.” This couplet heightens the piece’s momentum. Can you unpack the gender and power dynamic you have established here?

GA: The writing process here was largely intuitive for me, but I did set out to write about girls and women in this small corner of their town, feeling isolated from the comings and goings of typical middle-American life. A big part of coming-of-age narratives that I remember as a girl were always adventures with groups of friends solving mysteries and riding their bikes around suburbs. The characters in this piece felt alienated from the typical street filled with kids playing in their yards, so I wanted those men to feel like an invasion on their private corner of the world. Since this piece touches on the process of transformation and notions surrounding girlhood and growing up into the future, I thought shifting attention to the outside world of men as an invasion to the female-centered scope of the story might delicately point the reader toward ideas about permanence and resistance. The men represent this distant progression of time that takes some agency away from the women, especially in their socioeconomic position. I did want to, however lightly, gesture toward this sort of corruption of their world and lives through what happens in everyday capitalist realities — old homes are torn down and brand new structures are rebuilt in their place. When you see a giant movie theater or a Denny’s, there’s a good chance that used to be either empty fields or someone’s home. Something else likely happened there, whole histories and other lives. Since the story ends on a magical note that I hoped would allow for a different kind of existence for the girls, I wanted to show just what they were resisting when their lives take a different sort of path, however strange (and in this case, magical!) it is. I definitely see the markings of time in the story — the mothers’ funerals and men building a plaza — as signifiers for realities I’ve seen so many experience, this sense that women lead quiet lives and disappear, and that a world of production and profit (what I see largely as our patriarchal reality) continues forward. I wanted to show in the ending that while power structures in the world at large even in the strange space of this story have remained recognizable, that the girl characters here have transformed in more ways than one, and that this transformation is about reclamation and finding different ways to exist, to reject those men and the plazas, and find joy for themselves, even in a world not made by them or for them. I hope that makes sense and answers your question!

JNTP: Can you discuss some of your current projects? How much of this piece is reflected in your other works?

GA: I’m working on both a series of short stories and essays. The essays feel relatively separate from my fiction at this point, and are for the most part about American nostalgia and personal family dynamics in our political climate. “Silk” feels very much in conversation with the other fiction I’m working on right now. I’m envisioning the project as a series of “becomings.” For the most part, these stories focus on post-human ecological futures, featuring women/non-binary and queer voices’ inter-species transformation narratives. As the characters in these stories change into other beings, the project aims to illustrate processes of growing up and reclaiming one’s existence on the margins of belonging — especially from low-income communities, queer sexualities, and spaces of disability. The works are also meant to question the possibilities of human hybridity and evolvement in a fast-changing climate. Right now, almost all of the stories involve transformations into arthropods. I’m really interested in the abjection we often associate with insects, and also how we often tend to feminize them.

JNTP: What are you currently reading? Name your favorite book of prose, one of poetry, and perhaps, one that blends genres.

GA: I don’t know if I could ever commit to a favorite! I’m forever a huge fan of Shirley Jackson, and I feel a strong kinship with Marilynne Robinson’s prose stylistically. If I had to name one book of prose ever, probably either The Waves by Virginia Woolf or Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys. I’m reading Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai right now, which is so exciting with how it shape-shifts and deals with time, and just finished Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue, which I loved, too. I often return to Madeleine is Sleeping by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum for a dreamy hybrid book of prose. The Descent of Alette by Alice Notley has been a really important text for me, but I’m not sure if I can name one single favorite book of poetry. I’ve been reading Diane Seuss and returning to some Angel Nafis poems that just completely blow me away, and am incredibly excited to read Jos Charles’ new book, feeld. I recently finished The Ladies by Sara Veglahn, which is a novel, but I’d also consider the prose lyric/hybrid. I am generally just a really huge fan of Noemi Press. For hybrid work I also turn to Selah Saterstrom often. Excuse my rambling. I wish I were better at choosing favorites!

Megan Giddings: Gail, reading this story, it felt like you approached the pages thinking deeply about not just the writing, but the look of the writing on the page? Do you think more fiction writers should play in this way? And what literature (poetry, prose, anything you can think of) do you think writers could read to get inspired?

GA: Yes! Definitely. I deeply value imagination and surprise, and I think a prose style that challenges how we tell stories just opens up more potential for difference in the kinds of perspectives we’re able to see on the page. When I write, I’m always looking for how to investigate the ways we see the world and make room for connection despite and among mechanic systems that often feel constant, so I reach for creating worlds on the page that do not reinforce this monotony. When I first started writing, I was taught that a kind of measured and straightforward realist prose style is technically “good” writing and I’ve always felt somewhat resistant to this.

When more registers and styles of language are acceptable modes to communicate stories, I really hope and believe our idea of what a story is might expand for the better, and I see openness to genre-melding as a way to call our expectations and reaching for easy answers, and easy stories, into question.

I always feel very inspired by Lily Hoang, both with genre experimentation and just her gorgeous prose. Carmen Maria Machado’s stories consistently do really exciting things with form, and I’m so grateful for her work. I love the format play in Joni Murphy’s Double Teenage as well, and it’s been an inspiration to me in thinking about how to break up prose in surprising and lyrical ways to inform and complicate a story’s content, and how we choose to tell stories to begin with.


In the days somewhere between one winter and another spring, the night kept calling us to the sewer.

Q&A with Vickie Vértiz, author of Auto/Body

I'm in all times at all times. I'm both in Mesoamerican times – as someone who practices Aztec dance, and has a belief system built with syncretism, and also as a professor of Chicanx Studies is like taking apart Mexican identity via Mexican nationalism, and a child of the 80s as a queer person, and someone who worked grew up working class who loves things that have existed for a long time, and who likes to reuse them.