An Interview with Amelia Gray

We recently got the chance to interview Austin writer Amelia Gray, author of AM/PM and the forthcoming Museum of the Weird. Gray is one of our Top 5 Emerging Writers Under 40, and should not under any circumstances be confused with Amelia Grey, the romance writer. (That’s grAy, people. Not grEy.)

Amelia Gray (photo via featherproof books)

Anyway, without further ado, here are the weird and wonderful questions we asked her, along with her wonderfully weird answers.

Black Heart: As someone who has recently relocated to Austin, I’m always curious to know why other people chose to come here (especially with this damn HEAT!). So, why Austin for you? And how do you stay cool in this weather?
Amelia Gray:
I signed a lease here and immediately found out I didn’t get the job I was trying for, so I went a little nuts and wrote AM/PM instead. It’s a great town, sometimes I wish there was less going on. I’m from Tucson, so I’m like a lizard about this heat. Give me a hot brick to settle on.

BH: Would you say Austin is a literary town? Why or why not?
AG: We do our best. There are a handful of fun reading series [including her own 5 Things], half of the purpose of which is to get the writers out of their sad, tiny homes and get them talking to one another. I hear people envy us our Ransom Center. There are lots of working writers here, people who actually make a living off it. And there are lots of working writers who aren’t making a living yet, but are hustling and seeking out other writers and joining writing groups and just doing the work, ass in the chair. I’m proud of the fact that we can get a good crowd out if a visiting writer wants to come and read in a bar, and then we can get a group of girls to take that writer to go get tacos after. That’s about as literary as I need a town to be.

BH: What drew you to the short (even micro-fiction) form you use in your writing, and do you think you could ever see yourself writing a novel?
AG: I’ve always read the shortest stories I could get my hands on. It’s always appealed, the power to receive the full scope of a piece, to tour all the feelings the writer wants you to feel in one uninterrupted moment. It’s so easy to be brutal without consequence to characters in the shortest form. I’m writing a novel now though, so yes.

BH: Who are some of the writers you admire?
AG: Among living writers, Vanessa Place is at the top of my list currently. Christian TeBordo‘s most recent collection of short stories is sticking with me. I’ll always read and love Cormac McCarthy. The greats are like comets in the way they pull lesser lights behind.

BH: As a writing teacher, what would you say is the BEST thing a student can do in their work? And the WORST?
AG: I like it when they write “you” and then they use parentheses because they remember I told them to not use “you” and they write “(you, AMELIA). ” I’m really not into it when they use red ink because their printer is out of black. For reference, I teach comp.

BH: Do you have any special writing routines, rituals or superstitions? If so, what are they?
AG: I like to write in the morning before breakfast, and then I edit while drinking one cup of coffee. I write in WordPad or Notepad until something turns out to be over 20,000 words. There was a week where I stuck a milagro charm of St. Lucy to my forehead. Years ago I could only write in a closet. I wouldn’t suggest this stuff to anyone as an actual tool for getting work done, besides the morning writing, that’s a good one. I’m superstitious like a major-league pitcher. I’m prone to knocking on wood and turning over pennies. Side note, I’m answering this question on an airplane, and I kissed my fingertips and touched them to the outside of the plane before boarding.

BH: What are your vices, if any?
AG: Alliteration.

BH: Do you think writers need MFAs to publish these days? Why or why not?
AG: No. However, I’m sure some writers smartly use the connections they find in MFA programs to connect with publishing houses and editors and agents. I submitted AM/PM blind to Featherproof and got lucky, and I might have submitted it just as blind and got just as lucky without an MFA. On the other hand, without the experience and reading list I found in Texas State’s MFA program, I wouldn’t have written that book. On the other other hand, I probably would have written something else. A lot of teachers in a lot of MFA programs make a point of saying, “You could have done this without us if you sat in the chair and did the work.” People should probably be wary of teachers who don’t feel that way. But I’m grateful for the time I spent.

BH: How punk rock is the writing lifestyle, if at all? What’s been the highlight of your career thus far?
AG: On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is the clean-shaven male flight attendant who just handed me a package of Cheese Nips and 10 is Nancy Spungen bleeding out on a bathroom floor, writers are like a 2.7. Still, in the vein of misbehaving, it was a highlight to yell some violent threats while standing behind a church podium at a Literary Death Match. I always wanted to do that.

BH: What do you look for in a really great piece of writing?
AG: Something that sticks to my face on a hot day, or makes me throw the book across the room, or makes me put the book down and say “Oh goddamn,” or makes me check my cabinet for roaches. The last great thing I read was “When I Say Love” by Meredith Martinez. It was in Best of the Web.

BH: What’s the best thing a writer can do for his or her reputation these days?
AG: Be a good writer. Try not to be an asshole or over-promote on Facebook, but most important, be a good writer.

BH: I just read that Prince hates the Internet, and has actually said it’s “completely over,” and won’t allow any of his music to be released in digital format. I find that completely bizarre, and wondered if you had any opinion on this seemingly backward take on technology?
AG: I feel like Prince just said that about the Internet while he was angry. “Completely over” is something you say while you’re storming out of the house with a duffel bag. He’ll come back to us, and he’ll give us the gift of Prince on Twitter.

Prince declares the Internet "completely over"; Amelia Gray predicts "Prince on Twitter" (photo via NME)

BH: Have you ever had any writing mentors, and if so, who were they and how did they help you improve?
AG: My favorite mentors are the ones who had good reading lists and calming personalities and practical advice about being a writer. When I was scared about getting into the right MFA program that would perfectly develop my fragile/beautiful talent, Ron Carlson said he could give me an MFA and wrote “MFA” on a post-it note and handed it to me.

BH: Where do you hope to be in the next few years? What do you want to accomplish, literarily, before you die?
AG: I want to finish this book and start another one in the next few years, and I want to do that again and again. I want them to name an interstate after me.

BH: If you weren’t a writer, what would you do or be?
AG: Retail cashier.

BH: What kind of music or bands do you listen to when you need to be inspired? When you’re curled up in the fetal position?
AG: My taste in music is stupid. I don’t listen to a lot for writing. The fetal position calls for Cat Stevens on loop, not his up-with-people stuff. I have looped “The Wind” for weeks. Lately I’ve been trying to find the best recording of Baba Yaga from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. I mean, the best available on YouTube. Maybe this one. Yesterday I got lost and listened to “Always Strapped” for many hours.

BH: If you met a young writer who was hopelessly lost and (unfortunately) quite talent-free to boot, what would you tell him or her?
AG: Read and study. Don’t overthink the publishing industry; it will have a place for you when you have something new to feed it. They’ll call anything you publish before thirty Juvenalia anyway, unless you kick it early, and if you’re going to kick it early you might as well stop worrying and get some yoga in. I just learned that Mussorgsky composed the entirety of Pictures at an Exhibition in 20 days.

BH: Finally: ask yourself the question you’ve always wanted to be asked in an interview, and then answer it here.
AG: Q. What question have you always wanted to be asked in an interview?
A. What question have you always wanted to be asked in an interview?

For more from Amelia Gray, be sure to check out her website, ameliagray.com, and stay tuned for the upcoming Gray vs. Grey streetfight smackdown!