A Place of Love and Understanding
A Conversation with Beth Gilstrap
by James Yates
Several weeks ago, writer Amber Sparks posted a link on Facebook, and the sample quote contained this telling passage: “Access to technology and the knowledge it provides has only made us more paranoid.” When I looked for it yesterday, for the purposes of this interview, my brain framed the search as “where’s that Amber Sparks quote?” Sparks didn’t write the article (an examination of American noir, written by Angelica Jade Bastién for Vulture), but technology and social media can combine for a mix of voices, sometimes attributed, sometimes not, and for a person or piece of writing to be taken out of context, much like I’m doing with Bastién’s words.
I’m fascinated by social media and how people and writers present themselves, but I’m not interested in any arguments for or against it; you can go online and find dozens of articles that make perfect arguments for the pros and cons of one’s digital life. However, in the case of writer Beth Gilstrap, a digital collection of thoughts and photos tell a compelling story.
I discovered her work the old-fashioned way: a random tweet or Facebook link to one of her stories. I was blown away by her style. Her work details family and relationship problems, often with the backdrop of the southern United States, with meticulous details and curious metaphors. For example, the title of her story “Girls Like That Eat Lemon Pound Cake” (part of her debut collection I AM BARBARELLA, Twelve Winters Press) revolves around a religious woman’s concern and possible envy for the ‘sinners’ next door, a hypothesis about one’s food choices as an indication of the life one leads.
James Yates: You currently live in North Carolina, and with the exception of a couple stories with dates, there’s a sense that a lot of the actions in your collection could be happening in the present or in the mid-20th century. Are you more shaped by your current home, or where you lived growing up?
Beth Gilstrap: I grew up in Charlotte where I still live. I’ve moved a little east (to Monroe) a little north (to Raleigh) or a little south (to Rock Hill, SC) over the years, but I’ve spent most of my life in this city. It’s strange to live among the ghosts of my childhood and watch the city around me grow faster than I ever thought possible. Charlotte has gone from a trade route in its earliest days to a textile manufacturing hub to a banking hub. Most of the rural personality it once had has disappeared. I’ve lived in many houses over the years –both as a child and an adult, but my grandparents’ home in the Plaza Midwood neighborhood had the most impact. After the war, they worked in a mill together (along with most of their family) and purchased a new home close by. I have a mill yearbook from 1955 which shows seven of my relatives worked in one cloth room.
It’s astounding how different our lives are from that generation. They lived in that tiny postwar neighborhood for over fifty years. At one point, several of my grandmother’s siblings lived on the same street. They all worked together to make a life with little money. Anyway, their house is my framework. I miss it. I miss them, but I do have a pretty great porch swing now attached to a 60s era ranch home I adore.
Beth and I follow each other on Twitter and Instagram. The literary community, much like the regular community mentioned above, places too much and too little emphasis on one’s online presence. With Beth, her feeds are a blend of brutal honesty about anxiety, writing troubles, and, on Instagram, her rescue pets. These topics are close to me, which lend themselves to muddled definitions. Does commenting/liking one’s stories and photos constitute friendship? Does a social media presence give autobiographical insights into someone’s life and writing?
JY: If I remember correctly, you used to have a Facebook account, but deleted it. What made you keep Twitter and not Facebook? Do you view your social media presence as an extension of yourself?
BG: I do view it as an extension. I am honest --probably more honest than people are comfortable with a lot of the time. I question who I am, what I’m doing, if I’m worthy, if anyone notices, or if I’m doing enough. I work hard to support others as much as I can. I struggle with mental illness. I’m a reader and writer. I love my spouse and animals and The Muppets. What you see on my social media is what I swoon over or freak out about. I spend a lot of time alone since my husband travels for work and sometimes, Twitter and Instagram can feel like the only lifelines I have. I realize that’s not healthy, but it has helped me communicate with people who share these issues and to make friends I probably never would have due to distance, social anxiety, and my hermit tendencies.
I did have Facebook until a few years ago, but where once it was a place for close friends, it quickly turned into some gnarly beast child of a high school and family reunion where everyone gets shitfaced and spouts off their ridiculous opinions. It became too much noise in my head, so I got rid of it. Who and what I follow on Twitter are mostly writers, artists, and literary journals. I still get insecure and self-conscious, but I do think the benefits outweigh my neuroses. That said, I have scaled back my presence in recent months, wondering if I’m a downer to people. I don’t mean to be, but part of that is my illness and I want other writers and people who suffer with these issues to see they are not alone. If I go completely quiet and withdrawn, I know that’s when I’m in real trouble.
Beth and her husband care for a variety of rescued dogs and cats, which is how she and I originally bonded through non-writing topics. I recently re-read her story collection, and the appearance of animals takes on a new meaning when compared with her personal life. The old rule of thumb used to be “don’t confuse the writer with the story;” today, that could be amended into “don’t confuse the writer with the Instagram account.” However, what might be plot points to a stranger become different when, as you read a story, you recall the writer posting a picture of her cat or dog just hours before. One of my favorite pieces by Beth is “Quiet.” In this flash fiction, the emphasis on animals is so strong that the unmentioned, possibly dangerous actions of the characters are overshadowed: Anthony shows a child’s artwork -- it flakes when touched. Letters betray each other; the O in Mom is oafish. The Ds all lowercase. There’s not enough light. With earth in my mouth, a kitten screams. Mama Cat trails to the cat door. Crates on our ribs. Car horns. I dig the lighter out of my pocket; it spits and catches. Mary Theresa passes me a wedding photo; I put corner to flame. It bubbles. Flares. It slips when it gets down to my fingertips, falling to the carpet. Extinguishes. My thumbnail, browned.
JY: Given this passage and your passion for animals, how autobiographical is this? Did you treat this story as its own creation with the cats thrown in, or did you craft it based on personal experiences? Can this be viewed as a redundant question, given the questions about place and autobiographical influence?
BG: Ha. I find it hilarious you asked if the story inspired by hallucinogenic mushrooms was inspired personal experience. Part of it is, yes. I wanted to recreate the atmosphere of my late teens and early twenties. I witnessed a lot of heavy drug use. I smoked pot, but rarely did anything more intense than that. I tended to be the babysitter for everyone on mushrooms or acid or what have you. I paid attention to details. I had a notebook most of the time and back then, I didn’t talk much because my anxiety was so intense. I don’t think the cats in this story actually existed, but I do recall a dog chained to a tree outside one house I used to frequent. Neglect and abuse makes me angrier than anything.
JY: I personally have no shame posting cute animals photos online, but occasionally, I step back and wonder if it’s truly annoying, if pet photos fall into the same category as selfies and foot photos. Based on my own feed, I hypothesize that animals photos are a less invasive call for attention, like “Hey, here’s my cat, not me, but comment on this as an extension of my life.” What are your thoughts?
BG: I don’t care if my animal pics annoy people. They are a big part of my life since most of my friends live in other cities and I don’t have children. Most of them are alive because of me and I am grateful for all the joy they bring me. Don’t follow me on Instagram if you don’t want to see my pets. I published an essay about being called a crazy cat lady recently. I get tired of people judging me for what I see as compassion. I may be crazy, but that stereotype is dismissive bullshit.
One of Gilstrap’s strength’s as a writer is her notion of empathy, which I view as different from the endless debate over sympathetic characters. With much of her work set in the south, with troubled families, there’s the possibility for stereotypes and already-been-done conflicts that are instead rendered as wholly believable and unique. Instead of asking writers about their process, I think much can be gained from their relationships to empathy, which also comes out in Gilstrap’s social media feeds.
JY: Does being a pet owner enhance your notion of empathy in writing, or do you go about empathy as a whole for all of your writing? Do you think the semi-recent conversation about empathy is new, or has it just been worded in different ways?
BG: I absolutely believe having animal friends enhances my empathy. Caring for any living creature who needs you should expand your heart and your understanding. Forgive me if that sounds sappy, but they have taught me the meaning of patience and unconditional love. I grew up without a father and with a mother who was off working most of the time. I was a smart, quiet girl who sought solace in books and animals. Very little has changed in that regard. I feel my empathy extends to people, but I know I am a work-in-progress. I used to use the language of “ally” in reference to LGBTQ and POC communities before, (partly because I trained to be a SafeZone Ally when I taught college English), but I’ve learned to acknowledge my privilege and support marginalized communities by listening, by what I read and recommend, by the art I help put into the world, and (I hope) by what I write.
I try to approach people from a place of love and understanding, no matter what. My father is an alcoholic (in recovery) and part of the writing of I Am Barbarella was an attempt to understand how one gets to that place. We never know what we’re capable of or how we’ll cope with trauma. I’ve witnessed violence against POC, violence against the LGBTQ community, domestic abuse, extreme poverty, and even suicide. I consider it a moral obligation to be there for anyone who needs and wants me. One of my goals is to join a program which teaches creative writing as therapy, whether at a women’s shelter, or a prison, or what have you. If writing can save my life, I know it can save others.
JY: Many of your stories mention music (a Judas Priest concert in “Getting by With Sound,” band t-shirts, and in the story “Some Girl,” the idea of running away with a band), but it’s not as prevalent in your feeds. I’m not at all suggesting that a lack of band retweets means that your fictional depictions of music are surprising. How does music play a role in your creative process? I’m not asking for a playlist, but your writing definitely shows a wide range of potential likes.
BG: My older brother is a musician so music has always been a huge part of my life. In early Facebook days I posted music constantly. I tweet about music or bands occasionally (particularly if I’m at a concert), but I mostly keep what I’m listening to close these days as part of my creative process. Part of that is because I’m getting old, but I always have my headphones in when I’m writing. It helps me get into the bubble –to block out the rest of the world.
JY: I’m going to close with a big question. Your website banner is a quote from Emily Dickinson: “I’m Nobody! Who Are You?” Is that a philosophical idea you grapple with as an artist and a person, or is it more tongue-in-cheek?
BG: I have loved that poem and thought about Dickinson’s work since I was fifteen years old. Getting to know her work and her life shaped my ideas about a creative life, so yes, I suppose I feel a bit of a kinship with her due to her reclusive nature. I’m still surprised anyone’s read the things I’ve written. It’s a little punch of my self-loathing as well --a reminder to try harder to be kind to myself and not shut people out, too.
About the Interviewer:
James Yates is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Roosevelt University, and also serves as a contributing editor to Longform.org. His fiction has appeared in Hobart, CHEAP POP, Pithead Chapel, Luna Luna Magazine, WhiskeyPaper, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. His work was recently included in BASEBALL, the debut anthology from Hobart Handbooks. He lives in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood and is currently working on a novel.