Ashley and Ryan have spent much of their time together writing, reading each other’s work, and editing the literary journal Juked. Often writing in the same room, they’ve talked about the process a great deal. In this interview, conducted via text and email while Ashley was out of town, they ask each other questions about writing that they never have before.
Ryan: I usually have a good memory, a near photographic memory, but for some reason I can't remember when you started writing the poems that became The Farmacist. I just remember that one day you had a bunch of them, maybe ten poems, and I read those and said: These are great! You should do a book of them, which you did. But I've never asked you this: What was the initial inspiration? What prompted you to embark on this wild project?
Ashley: Well, you have the better memory of the two of us, so the book’s beginnings might be lost to time/Southern California. I know I’d moved to join you in Irvine after we’d been long-distance for three long years. I’d just finished graduate school, hadn’t found a job, and we were living in on-campus housing in the safest city in the world. We’d walk the neighborhood at night and I loved the weird plants and purple blooming trees and the fireworks we could see shooting off over Disneyland. And you probably remember that we messed around with cameras a lot back then, practicing shots, thinking about how to frame things, and so I remember this time in vivid colors and textures. Anyhow, we’d have these moments of tranquility there in that tiny spot, but then I’d go job-hunting in the morning and drive the insane freeways, making rookie moves that had me stuck in rush-hour traffic in your pickup without the A/C.
I feel like CA is both natural and completely unnatural, both laid-back and frenetic. It’s full of idealistic, hard-working dreamers and also burnt-out cynics. It was strange to me, plus: I was missing Kentucky and upstate New York and rural Nevada and the other places I’d lived that were much more low-key and filled with family and friends. So I was in awe a lot but also totally unsure about how we could make a life in this place where you have to have things planned out. That’s when I started playing the game online. Building a farm on a bright, flat screen felt part meditation, part escape, and I think I liked the element of control: I had a job, I had a home on the range, and the harder I worked, the more successful I became. Farm Town is a true meritocracy, which is the opposite of driving around Los Angeles looking for adjunct work.
When I showed you the project, you were encouraging—I do remember that part. I remember being surprised by your encouragement, too. Not because you don’t encourage me but because writing a book about the least-game-ish of all games sounds like a terrible idea. I didn’t take it very seriously, though, and didn’t think it’d accrue. Just as there was pleasure in playing the game, there was pleasure in having a project, a place to put my energy.
Ryan: Setting seems intentionally blurry in these pieces. Sometimes we're in the virtual world of the game. Sometimes we're in a non-fictive Southern California. Sometimes we're in both. This conflation of the digital and the real seems to this reader to be making some pretty cogent commentary re: life in 21st century America. Do you think that technology is changing us in some fundamental way as we strain to straddle both worlds (the real and the virtual) simultaneously? For instance, I'm sending you this question via text message.
Ashley: I know that technology has changed me and will continue to. My attention has shifted, how I work and read, how I interact with others. What’s funny is that there are other technological tools and online realms that have had much more of an impact on me than any game has. Yet this is where my focus travelled. I think it’s representative of what technology means to me: it’s escape—both from and into—it’s alienation and connection, and it’s something that can ease anxiety just as much as it can stoke it. It’s where I spend a lot of my time living. And sometimes the technological realms are the only ones that make sense. The game gave me an opportunity to imagine a 2-D space as mine at a time when I/we didn’t really have space that belonged to me/us.
Ryan: Follow up: there's a Christ figure that emerges in the book, this character Aluminum Head: part man, part machine. He arrives in a manger and soon enough he can predict the ebb and flow of the New York Stock Exchange while quoting passages of Whitman. This juxtaposition interests me. Do you see poetry as a form of currency or the stock market as a form of poetry? Or maybe a better question is this: can poetry save us from Wall Street?
Ashley: Poetry as currency? I’m not sure. Answering yes or no feels cynical for different reasons. And while I don’t know if poetry can save us from Wall Street, I think it can save our sanity.
Ryan: Maybe genre is a dumb question but I'll ask it anyway. I've been calling these FARMACIST pieces poems, but I guess they could also be read as fictions. Do you consider this book a volume of prose poems, a collection of stories, a novella, or none of the above? Is genre something that concerns you?
Ashley: I’m not too concerned about genre. Some pieces have been published as stories, others as poems. To me, there’s a narrative arc from beginning to end, which makes it feel like a novella. In terms of what I read and write, I’m interested in work that straddles categories or defies easy classification. In fact, I think I used to privilege that it in my own work. Now I just kind of try to let a piece (or project) do its own thing and put my own attention toward language, image, and momentum. I hope that a person who might read it responds to it on some level, but I’m not worried about how they classify it.
Ryan: Throughout the book we're introduced to a crew of fictional characters: from the unnamed speaker to Dr. Doomsday to our guy Aluminum Head (as well as his colleague Tin Can Head), but at the same time we also have cameos by a range of both living and historical figures such as Nikola Tesla, Carl Jung, Morrissey, and Roky Erikson. Simultaneously we also have appearances by folkloric figures like the wolf, Little Bo Peep, etc. What was the impetus behind this eclectic cast? Is there a hierarchy in the universe of the book? Or is it a true democracy where every voice has equal heft?
Ashley: Except for your avatar, really, Farm Town is absent characters (unless you have friends who play the game). Fairy tale archetypes came first as an impulse to fill the space and to feel a story beyond my own. In a strange little dream where apple trees are lined up perfectly against lemon trees in a very bright, flat way—and where coins spring from the ground—the game represents to me the stories we’ve been told about the American Dream. For this reason probably, childhood stories worked their way in organically. Some of the music figures burst from listening to music while I played the game. Aluminum Head and Tin Can Head: well, they’re harder to explain, but I picture their bolts and wired heads literally but also see them as little tragicomic embodiments of the World Wide Web.
Ryan: All told how many hours do you think you logged playing the game Farm Town when writing the book?
Ashley: Well, I just totaled this up and I’m guessing that I played the game upwards of 200 hours. Maybe 300? As I shifted into writing about it, I played less. I wrote the project over the course of three of years, then I spent another two editing it. It all feels far-away and hazy now: after all, I live in Kentucky again and it has been almost six years since I started it. Maybe I’ll log in today for old time’s sake.
Ryan: Follow up: do you see writing as a form of play?
Ashley: So, yes, for me, poetry is indeed a form of play. I think writing serves as a respite from daily concerns and as a conduit for energy, whether fearful or celebratory. The blank page is much like that of the Farm Town game: you channel electricity to build a world you want to live inside. I’m often drawn to poets whose work reflects surprise and playfulness—James Tate, Christopher Kennedy, Richard Brautigan—all of whom address the heavy, actual world in profound ways. I can’t take my work too seriously. I just hope that, in playing around, I can write through some of the things I’m most serious about.
Ashley: On the plane out here, I was thinking about how I never really knew how you got started writing. What was the class or book or person that turned you onto it to begin with? I'm thinking it wasn't high school English class....
Ryan: No, it definitely wasn't high school English. In those days my teachers were on autopilot and so was I. It was the 90s and slacking was king. But all along I was always a big reader and so it's hard to pin down a specific book per say (maybe Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle or Kerouac’s Dharma Bums were the first things I read and loved). However, I can tell you the exact class that turned me into a writer and it wasn’t an English class. It was a cinematography course taught by the experimental filmmaker, Brady Lewis. Around this time (fall '99) I was living in Pittsburgh and making short, Super-8 films, had dreams of being behind a camera for a living, and one night in Brady's class he brought in a professional cinematographer so we could watch one work. This guy comes in—I'm pretty sure he was the dude who shot Mr. Roger's Neighborhood?—and he's dropping F-stops, saying if the camera's here, shoot F 5.6. If it's here: F 2. This guy was a wizard. He could do the math in his head. He didn't even need to take gray card readings. It was insane how good this guy was and I thought: That settles it. It's official. I'm never going to be a cinematographer. I left class during break that night and dropped out of film school the next week. Soon enough I'd moved back to Louisville and started writing my first stories. I still wanted to be creative even if I couldn’t properly operate a camera. With fiction you didn’t need cameras or actors or really anything or than an imagination and a pen. That’s what attracted me to writing. Most writers are failed musicians, it seems, but I'm a failed filmmaker.
Ashley: Do you ever go back to a finished book or project and read it again? What do you think when you do? Are you critical of it? Stoked that you made it?
Ryan: I don't go back to my own stuff much, save for Hunters & Gamblers. That's my first book so I'll always have a soft spot for it. Every now and again, I'll pick that one up off the shelf and be like: damn, that's pretty good. I wrote that! Otherwise, I'm always looking forward, never back.
Ashley: How do you think we're different as writers? In some ways, I'm amazed that our work isn't more alike since we spend so much time with each other's words, but I think we're definitely doing different things. I tend to tell people you're funnier (you are) and more political...
Ryan: That’s a good question. I think your work is more languagey and also your worlds are more influenced by dream logic. I'm a deep sleeper and I rarely remember my dreams. But from the reports I get from you most mornings you dream these strange, Surrealist night movies, and I think that those unconscious elements are recursive and they show up in your writing.
Ashley: What do you think life would be like if you weren't married to another writer?
Ryan: I think I'd be on my third wife. Either that or I'd be a lawyer. To answer your question: I can't imagine it. Don't want to image it, either. I’m happy with my decision.
Ashley: Which of your books was the most fun to write? Why? Which one taught you the most?
Ryan: I learned the most from American Homes because it required the most research, but I'd say Camouflage Country was a funfest to write because I co-wrote it with the amazing Mel Bosworth. We had a blast making that book. In fact, we had so much fun I think we're going to do a sequel, call it Another Country. Collaboration takes away some of the loneliness inherent to the writing process. I encourage it. All writers should try it. Not only is it fun, you come up with things you'd never come up with on your own. It's what William Burroughs called "The Third Mind." When two artists are working together, according to Burroughs, it creates a third mind. And I believe him. Interesting stuff happens when you collaborate.
Ashley: How would you describe Camouflage Country to a stranger?
Ryan: Picture Horatio Alger’s greatest nightmares transcribed by the brothers Grimm or imagine Hemingway’s In Our Time except in our time (written by a third mind). If the book was a smell, it’d be jet fuel. A sound? One hand high fiving. In short, it’s something you’d maybe want to read.
Ashley: What do you hope a reader might take from it in terms of feelings and/or ideas?
Ryan: One word: joy.
Ashley Farmer is the author of The Farmacist (Jellyfish Highway Press, December 2015), as well as Beside Myself (Tiny Hardcore Press, 2012) and The Women (forthcoming 2016 from Civil Coping Mechanisms). Her work can be found in places like The Progressive, Flaunt Magazine, Santa Monica Review, and Gigantic. An editor for Juked, she lives and works in Louisville, KY. Visit Ashley HERE. Read a review of The Farmacist HERE.
Ryan Ridge is the author of the story collection Hunters & Gamblers, the poetry collection Ox, as well as the hybrid novel, American Homes. His new collection, Camouflage Country, co-written with Mel Bosworth, is out now from Queen's Ferry Press. He edits Juked and is currently a visiting professor of creative writing at the University of Louisville. Visit Ryan HERE.