Ashleigh Bryant Phillips’ debut collection won the 2020 C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book Prize, and it’s no surprise why: Sleepovers is at once dark and alluring; violent and devastating. Phillips drives us through the unfamiliar streets of the rural South, casting light onto Duck Thru gas stations and ABC stores and the houses on Peachtree Street, where a nice lady once opened the door to a salesman and changed his life forever. Philips’ writing is enormous, and you can feel its heartbeat on every page—each story leaves you feeling charmed, engaged, and also slightly guilty—just for seeking that next high of observation.
Below, I speak to the author about quarantine, writing, and pairing music with particular movements in her stories.
Hi, Ashleigh! Thank you so much for taking the time out to chat with me! Where are you writing from, and how are you holding up?
I’m writing this to you from my fire escape. It’s the closest thing I have to a porch here in Baltimore. And I’m holding up! Me and my boyfriend just got our first TV together and I’ve been enjoying watching historical documentaries on it before I go to sleep. Last night I learned a bit about the Canaanites.
That’s so exciting! How else have you been occupying your time in quarantine?
Right before Covid hit I became vegan and honestly, at the start, it kinda felt like I was losing part of who I am and where I come from. I mean I grew up eating fried chicken and catfish and snaps and collards seasoned with fat back every Sunday. And don’t forget the ham biscuits. And the BBQ—Good God, BBQ is religion in North Carolina. I grew up cooking pigs on a grill my daddy made from an oil drum. But this stay-at-home Covid period gave me the opportunity to gain confidence in my vegan cooking, even adapting some recipes from home, and I feel good about that. I’mma tell you though, when I did visit home a couple of weeks ago, it had been my first time back in almost a year, and although I made mama some vegan suppers, I also ate some Bojangles and Golden Skillet here and there, local chains known for their fried chicken—it woulda been a sin not to!
Your debut collection, Sleepovers, won the C. Michael Short Story Book Prize, and is out now via Hub City Press—congratulations! I know the situation isn’t quite ideal, but how does it feel to have your debut collection out in the world?
I’m just really thankful folks are finding their way to it. I never thought I’d ever have a book published anyways.
Have you reread the collection since the release? What was the experience like? Do you find that you have a favorite story?
Oh very good question! I have not read the collection all the way through since its release. I wonder what that says about me? And as far as a favorite story goes…that’s impossible. Each story functions as a specific sound in the Sleepoverschorus. But if my life depended on it, I’d say “Earth to Amy.” There’s the sound of a puppy yelping like it’s getting its ears pulled apart.
There is an exquisite arc in Sleepovers, as if the stories all come together to tell a larger story in their ordering. Did you play around with the arrangement a lot? What made you decide to open with “Shania” and close with “The Chopping Block”?
You can ask Hub City Press and they’ll tell you I was messing around with the order right until the last minute. But I always knew I wanted to start with “Shania” and end with “The Chopping Block.” “Shania” introduces the place, at one point we’re looking at a history book of the town. It’s also one of the earliest stories I ever wrote. And “The Chopping Block” functions as the last movement of a symphony. It’s the longest story in the collection and weaves in so many threads and themes seen and heard throughout the other stories. The last line was too good not to end on though, “They don’t ask me where I live. Everybody already knows.”
How do you feel about the assignment of genre, particularly fiction? Did you have a genre in mind while writing these stories?
Genre is a box that capitalism puts on art to package and sell it to consumers.
Well said! Your stories demonstrate a knack for pacing, almost replicating the movement of a story being told in real-time. What is your approach when writing? Do you find that you know your story intimately before you take to the page, or do you let the story take you where it wants you to go, i.e. “write to find out”?
I get bored very easily and don’t have the patience to “write to find out.” I mostly have things sorted out in my head before I get to writing. Maybe in revision I’ll throw in a “What if?” and see what happens. I did that with “The Locket.” In the first draft a black horse didn’t appear at the end.
You’ve done quite a bit of music writing, for City Daze and Indy Week in particular. I’m curious—how did your experience writing about music help in structuring these stories? Did you take notes and sort of hoard details in the same way? Or did you have a different process?
If my music writing helped me in structuring these stories I sure was not aware of it! All I know is I’ve always associated sounds with images and feelings. And every day I’m constantly keeping a record of sounds or images or feelings that really move me and I’m always trying to connect the dots between them.
Is there a particular album or song that comes to mind when you think about some of the stories from this collection?
I actually made a playlist for largeheartedboy that pairs music with particular movements within the stories. My boyfriend jokes that I spent way more time making the Sleepovers playlist than I did writing the stories.
Could you tell us a little bit about your writing process? Do you have a specific time, or day, or perhaps a particular space where you prefer to sit down and write?
Oh gosh. I just keep my notebook around and write down in it when the words are ready to come out. The other day it was while I was in the kitchen waiting for some water to boil.
What are some of the books you’ve read and loved recently?
Let The Dead Bury Their Dead by Randall Kenan is a collection of short stories that shows us the power and miracles of fiction. It makes us hear more clearly and see where we were blind.
Lastly, is there an indie bookstore you’d like to recommend to our readers?
I’ve found some of the most amazing used books at Nice Price Books in Raleigh, North Carolina. So & So Books in Raleigh, North Carolina also has an excellently curated new indie selection—they always keep it really fresh in there. Chop Suey Books in Richmond, Virginia has new and used but honestly their used section is my favorite, particularly for poetry and short fiction!
Thank you so much for your time, Ashleigh!
Sleepovers is out now via Hub City Press, and available wherever books are sold.