An interview with Joy Baglio

\"\"Joy Baglio will be presenting a workshop at this year’s WriteAngles. She was interviewed by Joan Axelrod-Contrada.

Why did you become a writer? When did the writing bug first bite you?

I’ve written for as long as I can remember and have known since early childhood that that’s what I’ve wanted to be. My sister and I grew up surrounded by the most magical collection of children’s books, all curated and read to us on a daily basis by my mother. I have several early memories: Before I could write, I’d dictate stories to my mother, who’d scrawl them in notebooks for me. Later on, I’d make my own “books” and illustrate them. I remember one was called HORSE OF THE MOUNTAINS, about a horse who goes rogue and forms a community of woodland animals on some remote mountain. Another was about my cockatiel, Emily, from her point of view. I also remember telling scary stories on the morning bus ride to school, at first to my sister, then to what turned into almost the whole bus. I’d make them up on the spot, and some of them were really good! I actually wish I could remember them now. I’d leave the story hanging when we got to school and continue the next day. As a child, I also made these ridiculous goals for myself: “Be published before age 18” which, thank god, I’m so grateful I didn’t succeed at!

I think the real reason I’m a writer today is that it’s the best way I know to express what sometimes feels like a very mysterious kind of creative energy, that, in my case, often reveals itself in the form of strange scenarios, philosophical musings, verbal fragments, flashes of scene, what ifs, and other stuff of story. I was always a visual artist in high school and college, but somehow I couldn’t express the same ideas through that medium (despite really loving it). Beyond all this, there’s the sheer thrill of being inside of a story I’m excited about – there’s nothing quite like it.

What’s your writing process like?

I’m a really chaotic writer, for better or worse. My process is both immensely exhilarating, and at the same time hair-pulling in its frustration. I tend to have a lot of ideas and often am working on many different projects at once. Sometimes, I’ll be deep in the weeds of my novel, when I’ll get (quite literally) flashes of images from other shorter stories and I’ll go back and forth between several different documents. While this seems confusing, it actually allows me to advance several pieces at once, while also letting me shift focus if I’m blocked on a particular piece or just not excited to work on a certain story that day. It also allows the requisite space from each piece which I find so invaluable for gaining a degree of objectivity.

Since I’ve been so novel-focused lately, my process has taken on a lot of consistency. I find I need to work on the novel as often as possible in order to keep the momentum going. Mornings are best, when my mind hasn’t encountered anything else yet, and I try to start as early as possible and go for several hours, sometimes longer. I use placeholders all the time when I write, and I give myself permission to be absolutely messy (which can be hard for someone as prone to obsessive organization as I am)! Since my novel is so research-heavy, I have to be on guard that this doesn’t become a clever form of procrastination. I’ll often find myself down some rabbit hole of marine biology (because of my novel’s subject matter) if I’m not a little strict with myself. Though in general, I find the constant flux between generative writing, outlining, and research to be a really productive way of working for me.

What are you trying to accomplish as a writer?

Stylistically and thematically, I’m interested in “distortion…to get at truth,” as Flannery O’Connor has said: The idea of creating “imaginary gardens with real toadstools.” The more I write speculatively, the less patience or tolerance I have for gimmicks or for weird for weird’s sake. I’m interested in a metaphorical layer of truth that can only be gotten at through slightly altered scenarios and realities that push us outside of our expected ways of seeing the world and its situations. I’m endlessly inspired by my heroes, Angela Carter, Karen Russell, Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, George Saunders. I love how deeply philosophical they all are, how poignantly they get at issues so relevant to us while also inverting and shaking up our way of seeing these very things, and often doing it with such humor, wit, and ferocity of language.

Ultimately, I’m interested in telling the best stories I can. I want to write works that are enjoyable, that hook readers and reveal something to them that’s true, meaningful, hopeful, and a little transcendent.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

This is difficult, since I’ve been so blessed to work with so many amazing authors from whom I’ve learned so, so much. I would say the way Rebecca Makkai has explained the role of place as a force that can put pressure on characters, spurring them into action, has been pretty liberating for me and really revolutionized how I view narrative. Dorothy Alison’s Tin House essay on “Place” has also stayed with me and is similarly filled with nuggets of absolute gold about the way place can work for and shape story. What feels most relevant to me now, though, is Aimee Bender’s advice on following your own excitement – otherwise the writing will be dutiful. This idea has really impacted me and helped me get back in touch with that part of myself that is just really, really excited about certain kinds of stories. It’s that obsessive, raw excitement that I’m so interested in following, and that most often leads me to my best writing.

What are you working on now?

I’m completely consumed by my novel-in-progress, HOW TO SURVIVE ON LAND. It’s growing out of my short story of the same name (which was the runner-up in Ploughshares’ Emerging Writers’ Conference in 2016 and published in New Ohio Review the same year). It’s a totally enthralling project for me, because I’m so deeply invested in this family and have been for years, since I began the story in 2013. It follows the struggles of two half-mermaid sisters coming to terms with their own strangeness and dual-identities, largely in the wake of their mermaid mother’s return to the ocean (and consequent abandonment of the family). There’s so much marine science, so much about the ocean, the Pacific Northwest, specifically the Aleutian Islands (did you know that’s the site of one of the most diverse deep-sea coral reefs in the world?) and I’ve been doing a lot of research as I write. I’m aiming to have a first-draft done by summer 2018 which feels completely doable, since I already have a strong sense of the story and the major narrative arcs. Hopefully I’ll be doing a lot of research-related travel in 2018 as well (grants pending)! Outside of that, I’m also putting together my first short story collection as well as working on a handful of flash fiction pieces.

You’ll be presenting about flash fiction and nonfiction at WriteAngles this year. Can you tell us a little about what you’re planning?

Absolutely! I love flash fiction, and I love talking about it with other writers. The thing about flash is that it has, in many ways, led me to my voice, to what I’m most interested in. It’s literally made me a better writer and is an amazing form for emerging writers – or any writer, really: In order to do it successfully, you must fully understand the core of your story. There is no room in a flash piece for the extra meandering that longer forms allow, or for what Robert Bausch calls “dailiness” or “verisimilitude for its own sake.” The techniques of writing publishable flash fiction are really the techniques of powerful self-editing and the ability to get to the core of the piece and strip away everything inessential. It’s also an amazing form for those trying to achieve publication for the first time, as so many journals are now publishing flash, and my own experience – and that of many other emerging writers – is that it’s a great way to get noticed by top journals, or any journal for that matter. It also offers a tremendous boost in morale to writers who are laboring on longer works and need the satisfaction of completing a piece, however short.

At the conference, we’re going to be talking about the mechanics of some truly masterful and breathtaking flash pieces (you will come away with a great little packet) and work to understand how these pieces are functioning and to what effects. We’ll touch on the market, publishing, specific journals, and we’ll be doing a writing and brainstorming exercise that’s lots of fun! A big question at the heart of what we’ll be discussing is how can the flash form really help you become a better (and more publishable) writer? Because it absolutely can. But you have to be willing – and there’s something very paradoxical and Zen about this – to risk losing everything, to chop whole sections that you love from your work. It’s such a meticulous form – in many ways very unforgiving – but it can be quite liberating the more you practice it, as well as genuinely miraculous and transformative.

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