On the first day of December in 2020, I sat down with Ashley Hutson over Zoom to talk about her upcoming debut novel One’s Company forthcoming from W. W. Norton and what she’s looking for in this year’s Sudden Fiction submissions.
Ashley Hutson’s writing has appeared in Granta, Electric Literature, Wigleaf, Catapult, Fanzine, and other places. Her debut novel is forthcoming from W.W. Norton. She lives in Sharpsburg, Maryland.
The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Berkeley Fiction Review: I saw that you have a forthcoming debut novel from Norton. What has it been like working on the novel during a very crazy year?
Ashley Hutson: Well, it’s weird because I wrote the novel a couple of years ago, and then I finally sold it this year. And I’ve been working on editing it for this year, just in the last few months actually. And it’s so strange because it’s almost like revisiting a part of myself that I’d forgotten because it’s like you write something and then you put it aside, and then a year later you have to come back and do all of these edits. And I don’t know, it’s like, did I write this? So that’s interesting.
BFR: Is there anything you could tell us about the novel?
Ashley Hutson: Yeah, I can give you an overview—the title is One’s Company. It’s about a woman who wins the lottery and then withdraws into a facsimile of her favorite show, which is Three’s Company, and tries to escape her past and reality itself.
BFR: Do you know if there’s a pub date for it yet?
Ashley Hutson: I have been told either at the end of 2021 or beginning of 2022—2022 is probably more likely.
BFR: Do you have any favorite novels or works that you’ve really enjoyed this year?
Ashley Hutson: Yeah, I just finished reading the Seventh Mansion by Maryse Meijer, and I feel like she doesn’t get as much hype as she should because she’s a genius. And I just finished reading The Harpy by Megan Hunter, and that had some beautiful writing in it. I also read Earthlings by Sayaka Murata. She wrote Convenience Store Woman, which I loved, but Earthlings was really good too.
When I’m editing and writing, I don’t read a lot of books, but since I turned in my final manuscript October 15th I’ve been kind of catching up.
BFR: I remember I read in your SmokeLong Quarterly interview that you find yourself drawn to writing about rural life. Do you find yourself drawn to any other themes when you’re writing?
Ashley Hutson: Obsession, death, loss, memory. Lately, I’ve been writing a lot or thinking a lot about identity and who we are, who we think we are, how we’re perceived, who we’re perceived as, and who we really are. Is there a truth among any of that?
BFR: I love the list though.
Ashley Hutson: Just a few light subjects.
BFR: I read your flash fiction, “Something Else”, at Split Lip Magazine and you do such amazing and devastating work in such little time, especially with “Something Else” because it’s very short. Could you talk a little bit about your process when it comes to writing?
Ashley Hutson: Honestly, I don’t really know what people mean when they say “process.” I don’t have a process, I’m not fancy. If I get an idea, I sit down and write it, and if it’s juicy I keep working on it.
I will say that I have learned to—when I finish something—just own it for a while. I put it away and I don’t look at it for a while because usually when I look at it again, it stinks.
When you finish something in the flush of creating this thing, you think it’s genius, you think you’ve done something amazing, and that can be really dangerous when you submit it and then you realize, “Oh, gee, I should’ve waited on that.”
So that’s really the only process thing. I write a lot in my journal and make lists of things.
BFR: I’ve always wondered, for “Something Else” and your other fiction, do they just come to you all at once, like you know exactly where and when it’s going or do you find yourself kind of like, “Oh, like wherever it takes me, it takes me”?
Ashley Hutson: I think with that one, “Something Else,” it was a part of a contest where you had to listen to this playlist of songs that was chosen by the judge and write something inspired by the music. Because of that I feel like that piece has a lot of colors in it. I have this synesthesia thing going on—it’s not diagnosed or anything—but I see colors in phrases or words, or seasons of the year have different landscapes and flavors in my mind.
So I took the colors I got from some of the songs and went from there. And I had a friend who died of a drug overdose, and where I live that’s a real thing, the whole opioid epidemic. And I think everybody knows somebody who’s OD’d but you can’t really talk about it—it’s like, “Oh, well, they’re just an addict. Who cares? They had it coming or they did it to themselves.”
And I just wanted to write something that railed against that in some way. Somebody loved them. Somebody cared about them—they were a human, and we’re all very flawed, and we all have our problems. Hopefully I communicated that. But I remember I wrote this line in that piece—“We walked along the train tracks, the distant city lights polluting the darkness behind us.” I remember thinking, That’s a really good line. I still think about that sentence.
I usually feel like I’m never writing what I really mean to say. I have often felt that if I ever wrote the perfect thing, I would just quit writing. I mean, I would quit publishing because what’s the point? If I achieved that, if I actually said what I wanted to say, the one perfect thing, why continue—just quit while you’re ahead.
There’s this one flash fiction, it’s called “When I Say Love” by Meredith Martinez, it was published at Contrary Magazine years ago, but I read that, and I think if I had written that I would quit writing—I would just stop because I would have achieved everything. It’s like you said—I don’t even know if it’s 300 words, it’s tiny—but it does so much in such a short space.
BFR: And of course I know you’ve also published essays here and there. I remember “Strangers to Our Teeth: What We Judge When We Judge “Bad Teeth”” at Catapult. I know you said you don’t really have a process, but do you feel like you have a different mindset or approach between writing fiction and non-fiction?
Ashley Hutson: With essays, I usually just want to connect with other people. But when I write fiction, I don’t really have an audience in mind, I just write because I want to explain something to myself.
As far as the essays go, I’m kind of upset with myself for publishing them. But there’s a certain element of the lit world that capitalizes on and commodifies trauma and confession. People love to gawk at the freak show. I wanted to get paid, and I knew that if I wrote about some of my experiences, it would sell. And I was right.
But I wrote that teeth essay and I’ve gotten emails from people who say, “Wow, I feel the same way,” and that’s really—that means something. I am shocked whenever anybody reads anything I write. It’s wonderful. But it’s also surprising, I’m always surprised.
BFR: And just circling back to One’s Company, what are you hoping readers feel when they read it?
Ashley Hutson: I guess at the end, I want to break someone’s heart. I want to feel like I’ve made something that is beyond just a story. Like when you wake up from a dream, and you can’t remember the dream, but you know you’ve been somewhere, you’ve seen something, and you know it’s important, but you’re only left with a deep question, and maybe you’ll never know, you’ll never truly understand that feeling. Maybe if you thoroughly express that feeling, it would lose something. It would be ruined. That’s what I hope when I write fiction, that’s what I like to communicate. And that’s what I like to read—I like to read stuff that makes me ask a question or makes me feel disturbed, that upsets me somehow. I like being disturbed.
BFR: Do you feel geographically, living where you live, it impacts what you tend to write about or the themes that you tend to write about?
Ashley Hutson: Yeah, I think like most people—maybe they don’t even realize it—they’re influenced by where they are and the people that [they] grew up with. I live right next to Antietam Battlefield, I live in Sharpsburg. I grew up in Clear Spring, Maryland, which is a half hour away, so all farmland. It’s all very out in the country, rural.
And western Maryland, we’re sort of the redheaded stepchild of Maryland, like nobody else in Maryland likes to admit that we’re here, you know? But, yeah, I’m really influenced by the people I know and have met. In the lit world it seems like everyone is either in the city or writing about the city. I often feel like the rural perspective is fetishized—maybe that’s too strong a word—but there’s a very narrow slice of experience that people expect you to share.
BFR: Growing up, did you always know that writing was what you wanted to do?
Ashley Hutson: I always liked to read, and I always liked to write, but no. I mean, I love my family and they’re wonderful people, but they’re very practical people, okay? Like, creative things are hobbies, at best—as a kid, you have to be a Mozart-level prodigy to be considered destined for something artistic. And that’s what I always thought. I always felt like writers were these mythical beings that were blessed from the beginning and everybody knew it, too. And if you weren’t that way, well, it wasn’t your destiny in life.
And so I only really started writing and publishing as an adult. And even when I started, it was real hush-hush. I was real secretive about it. Because I didn’t want it to be taken away from me.
BFR: Yeah, it’s a little bit of imposter syndrome and things.
Ashley Hutson: I’m just so amazed at how other people feel entitled to be a writer. Like they say, “Oh, I’m a writer,” without apology or without even thinking about it. Whereas I always feel like every time I publish something, I’m getting one up on somebody. I think, “Oh, well, I put one over on them.”
BFR: Do you happen to have a favorite piece of fiction from your body of work or a story that you would want new readers to start with?
Ashley Hutson: That’s such a good question because I haven’t really read [my work] in a while. I published a story, it wasn’t flash fiction, but it was a story in Granta called “Challenger Deep” and I’m kind of proud of that one.
BFR: Could you tell me what it’s about?
Ashley Hutson: Well, it’s told from the perspective of a mother whose son has returned from a war zone of some kind and isn’t altogether well. And he’s living at home and everybody’s just trying to cope with that situation. And I like the voice of that one. I feel like I captured the obsessive, ruminatory voice that I wanted to achieve, and it feels very familiar to me because it’s always in my head.
Whenever I read anything I’ve written, and I either hate it or feel like, “Boy, I should have given that three more edits before I turned that one in.” I just want to go back and rewrite.
There’s also another one I wrote, X-R-A-Y Lit published it, it was called “On Our Way to See You.” I love how I ended that one, but I haven’t re-read it recently.
BFR: No, I get it, sometimes you just want to never look at it ever again [laughing]. And I have noticed your writing does tend to lean towards flash a little bit more. Is there something about flash fiction that really attracts you to it?
Ashley Hutson: Well, when I first started publishing or submitting things for publishing, I was writing a lot of flash, shorter things. I just liked the immediacy of it. I feel like when you write flash, you’re giving something to the reader, like an electric shock.
Honestly, since I’ve been editing this novel, I haven’t been writing much creatively. And a lot’s been happening in my life lately, so the writing has taken a back seat momentarily.
BFR: It’s okay, we all have our slow moments and then lightning strikes. What makes good flash fiction for you when you read it?
Ashley Hutson: Hmm, I like a feeling of mystery. I like being left with something ineffable, [where] I feel as if I’ve learned something, or a question has been asked or a question has been answered, or something has been expressed that I never thought to express, or something unexpected happens.
I like things that are funny. I think humor is really hard to do. I mean, flash comes in so many different forms. I don’t really have a set thing. I like to feel that I’ve been somewhere [and] maybe I don’t even know where I’ve been.
BFR: Do you have any favorite flash fiction?
Ashley Hutson: I was thinking about this question and I was reading this Russian writer earlier this year. His name is Daniil Kharms, and it was a collection called Today I Wrote Nothing, and there was this one story. It was just real tiny, it was called “Events” and it was bleak and funny.
BFR: Do you have any favorite places you like to read fiction online?
Ashley Hutson: I used to read Wigleaf periodically. Matchbook, I feel like they publish good flash fiction. And I care about how things look on the page. So to me, websites that have very clean layouts to me get automatic extra points. They also seem to publish better work. There must be some kind of synergy there, I’m not really sure.
BFR: Since you’re judging our 2021 Sudden Fiction Contest, do you have any advice or words for the writers who will be submitting?
Ashley Huston: No. Don’t be boring. To be boring is like a cardinal sin in my mind. I’d rather it be bad than be boring. I’d rather be terribly offended than be bored—at least I’m feeling something.
Submit your under-1000-word story to Berkeley Fiction Review for our annual 2021 Sudden Fiction Contest! First, second, and third place finalists are published in the journal and receive prize money of up to $150. Honorable mentions are published alongside the placed winners in the journal. There is a submission fee of $5. To find out more about our annual 2021 Sudden Fiction Contest, head over here.