Hybrid Interview: Madeline ffitch
In our hybrid interview series, we pair an author Q&A with a critical essay about one or more of their books. —CRAFT
By Candace Walsh •
“We live in a world that has unconstrained wildness, and we like to forget we are part of that wildness,” says Madeline ffitch, author of PEN/Hemingway Award–finalist Stay and Fight. Fiction that only acknowledges characters’ thoughts, dialogue, living and work spaces, and cars—but glosses over their own bodies and the natural world surrounding them—not only diminishes an undeniable interrelatedness, it also ignores opportunities to deepen the quality of one’s writing in various craft areas, including sense of place, characterization, relationships, theme, worldbuilding, imagery, and sensory description.
Stay and Fight tells the story of an intentional family: an Appalachian lesbian couple, Karen and Lily; their straight, Pacific Northwest book-smart friend Helen; and the son, Perley, they raise together off the grid in a house they built on Helen’s land near Athens, Ohio. Nature pulsates through this book, from the snakes that decide to move into their house to the way the main characters see themselves, each other, and their world.
Many nature references in the novel spring from scenes set outside, but don’t stop at tableau-setting. When Karen and Lily find out Lily is finally pregnant after years of failed attempts, Karen relates, “we dragged our mattress out beneath the sumac tree at the edge of the pasture. We lay there and talked about what kind of parents we wanted to be…. Lily turned in my arms, her body beginning to generate quarts of new blood. Twined together, we upset the sumac. It dropped its berries to smear our bodies the color of rust.”
Karen thinks about Lily not just as an abstract vessel of childbearing, but in the ways her body is already responding biologically to pregnancy. They are “twined together,” a characterization of their relationship which evokes thoughts of vines and branches. Karen takes for granted that their twining would “upset” the sumac tree, and interprets the dropping of berries as a conscious response. The berries’ color is rust, which amplifies the reference to blood.
ffitch renders non-human animals not only as significant motifs, but as significant characters. Black rat snakes move into the house and remain a constant presence. One of them serves as a catalyst for the most compelling plot twist in the novel: a government child welfare agency deciding Lily, Karen, and Helen are unfit parents because they are raising Perley off the grid, in what the social worker perceives to be a ramshackle, unsanitary house.
Perley grows up with a snake that likes to lie across the back of their couch, and another one that likes to sleep in bed with him and his two moms. He calls himself “Friend of Snake.” ffitch develops his character through his expression of an affinity with the animals around him. He is not a child who grows up with stuffed animals or pets; those concepts align with ideas of artificiality and stratification. Perley shares, “Mama K says the snakes aren’t pets, they are wild. She says they are wild and I am wild. What does it mean to be wild? I asked, and she said, It means that you can make yourself invisible. When you are in the woods, no one can see you.”
ffitch personifies Karen and Perley by orienting them within a philosophy of restorative wholeness. Karen’s main objective as a parent is to teach Perley how to be smart and safe, not just in nature but because of it. Being wild means being just as quiet and aware as wild animals. She teaches him how to blend in because she sees it as his birthright.
Snakes also introduce and amplify conflict, based on how Karen’s philosophy (all nature, all the time) conflicts with town-raised Lily’s perspective (nature’s great, but safety’s paramount). When a snake decides it has a right to sleep with Karen, Lily, and Perley, Lily notices that “[t]he snake in the bed should have forced us to make common cause…. Instead, the snake in the bed divided us into defiance, avoidance, competition. Of course, those words are just ideas. And ideas are nothing against an actual black snake in an actual bed.” With Lily’s point of view, ffitch deftly switches between using the snake as an opportunity to sketch out vectors of conflict (a motif treatment) and acknowledging the literal snake (as a character doing things).
Just like Chekhov’s Act I gun, when you introduce a snake to a bed, in fiction, eventually it’s going to bite someone. When Perley rolls over onto the snake in his sleep and cuts off its air, the snake lashes out and bites him on the face below his eye. Because of the respectful contextualizing ffitch accomplished, we understand its reaction instead of seeing this as a malicious act. Karen and Perley brook no separation between themselves and wildness; Lily is easily cowed by Karen, and the snake is not going to passively accept suffocation. We know who they are via the characterization of individuals, beings, and relationships, and the world building of the novel.
While Karen dresses Perley’s wound, Lily holds him. Karen says, “Finally, when my work was done, Lily released Perley into my arms. It had been two years since she’d stopped nursing him, but as she fell back into the bloody pillows, I saw the damp circles spread from her nipples, darkening the sheet. Her new milk mingled with the snake oil.” Lily, least ardent of the three in her feelings of identification with nature, demonstrates the most concrete connection to nature when her body’s biological drive to protect her son manifests in re-lactation. (Because it contains antibodies and other helpful substances, breastmilk is commonly used topically to treat wounds and infections.)
The snake bite unites the three contentious women as they tend to Perley. Helen, who often feels like the third wheel, feels happy in spite of the circumstances: “The day was a warm wave, raising me up and tossing me toward the human family.” With the metaphor of the day as “a warm wave,” Helen feels an external natural force acting on her.
ffitch’s nature-drenched craft choices amplify the thematic substructure of Stay and Fight, but we as writers do not have to share her profound narrative stance to make similar choices. Writing from a place of wholeness, restoration, and reconnection gives us tools to build far more dimensional stories. We are the gods of the fictional worlds we invent; we can free our characters from their offices, their cars, their living rooms and perhaps most importantly, their minds.
Madeline ffitch and I sat down together at Catalyst Café in Athens, Ohio, on October 4, 2019. She was in town to do Stay and Fight events affiliated with Ohio University, where she earned her PhD in Creative Writing (Fiction). This region is also connected to her novel’s setting: “not quite West Virginia but right there on the border. In a hill town with a land grant institution, a hardware and salvage store, an IGA, a diner, and thirty bars…” Since our conversation, Stay and Fight was named a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novels and the book is a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. —Candace Walsh
Candace Walsh: I’d like to start by asking you about the memorable way you kicked off Stay and Fight. [“One winter, Rudy got an infection in his testicles while he lay out drunk on coal company land in a one-room shack that didn’t belong to him.”] It pulled me in like a vacuum hose. As writers, we’re taught to think a lot about how to begin our novels.
Madeline ffitch: I have a lot of thoughts about that particular thing. People have to decide where to start their stories, and a lot of times people are thinking in obedient ways. Instead of allowing themselves to be led by desire or pleasure, they’re led by shoulds, by an administrative voice. Zadie Smith says writing is a confidence trick; when what you’re writing is keeping yourself in the writing, it helps you feel more real, which means the story is more real. The part of the story that moves me: why wait to present that part until later? I don’t see any reason. I try to lead with the desire and the pleasure of the writing.
But on the other hand, one of the pitfalls of writing is writing in too much of a performative way because of the fear of boring people. I have conflicting feelings about it. I like to do it, and then unlearn it. People will still read my book if I don’t start out with a testicle infection in the first sentence. Writers like Rachel Cusk start out in patient and concealed ways.
CW: Yes, and it doesn’t seem to be holding her back.
Mff: I recently watched (heard?) an interview with Cusk. She was asked, “Why is your writing funny?” And she went off the defended intellectual script to say, “It’s the tradition I was raised in. If you invite people to your house, make them glad they came over.” I loved that she admitted that. It’s a generous way to treat/flirt with the reader.
CW: Stay and Fight is deeply rooted by a sense of place, is spoken from this area. How did that develop for you?
Mff: I read a critique recently that contemporary American fiction is not situated in the physical world, as a way for the fiction to be apolitical. How many contemporary fiction stories have you read where the characters just exist in their heads, and go from car to building…the physical world seems to not matter or impact people. That’s a high-stakes claim to be making in terms of climate and wealth stratification. It’s not apolitical. If the natural world does not impact people, that’s saying something by not saying something. It’s just talking heads for pages. Where are they? What’s the weather like? Do they have feet? What are the animals doing? We live in a world that has unconstrained wildness, and we like to forget we are part of that wildness. We like to pretend we’re domesticated.
As a kid, I spent a lot of time outside. I learned to build a fire when I was six, had my first pocketknife at six. I spent a lot of time in the woods. Being kinetic, knowing how to do things with your hands, matters a lot to me, and it’s a place I go back to with the writing.
I have always had jobs working outside. My first job here, working for a tree trimmer, landscaper, trail crew, forest service, doing job training in the woods in rural places. I think sometimes when I’m writing, going back to what the physical world is doing helps me understand the characters and their stories a lot better. Local people here are deeply bonded to the land. That’s very bound up in colonization and earlier and ongoing indigenous bonds to the land. In Appalachia, people have bonds with the land that go far beyond land as property, monetary land. Industrial capitalism only values land as far as what can be extracted.
My partner had a piece of land here he owned with friends. When I wasn’t on tour, I’d stay here and help out around the place. I realized it’s not the kind of thing you can do part-time. I stayed and got more serious—we had goats, planted asparagus, fruit trees—and I applied to the writing program.
CW: On tour?
Mff: I was part of a theater company [co-founder of punk theater company Missoula Oblongata]. I went into it as a writer. We all did everything: wrote plays, built sets, made everything, and acted and performed. But the way I came into it was by writing.
CW: I think readers love to learn new things when they’re reading novels: to try on, sit with various expertises of fictional characters. I read your book just a few weeks after I moved here, and I was so hungry to learn about my new home, but I didn’t know where to start. Reading your book provided a very pleasurable experience of learning a great deal, with the knowledge embedded in such a compelling narrative. For it to work, the writer has to be able to include knowledge in ways that don’t seem condescending or elementary to knowledgeable readers, but also gives uninformed readers enough to get it, too. Stay and Fight accomplishes a lot didactically, but never gets preachy or comes from a lofty place.
Mff: At first, I was defensive: I’m not writing this book so people can exoticize Appalachian people. I tried to just write what I knew, and in a way that would be recognizable and have the respect of people who have that life and know what I am referring to. Other people needed more details. It brought me closer to what I’ve done. It was exciting to look at something familiar, but slow down, rewrite tree trimming scenes, ask myself, what actually happens? How would I explain this? It brought me closer to things I take for granted.
CW: When you mentioned asparagus, it reminded about the passage in Stay and Fight from Lily’s point of view: “On Helen’s land that spring, I started an asparagus patch, knowing full well that when you plant asparagus you don’t eat it the first year. If you’re smart, you don’t eat it even the second year. When you plant asparagus, you’re making a bond, to be there when it’s time to harvest it, at least three years on.” She also recalls, “If you eat the raw shoots in the springtime, your blood thickens like a warrior, is what my grandma told me.”
But the book isn’t just first person from Lily’s perspective. It’s a polyphonic novel with four points of view that alternate by chapter. I don’t always like novels that take that approach, because sometimes the voices aren’t differentiated enough, or I prefer one character so much that I resent having to spend intimate time with others. But Stay and Fight pulled it off beautifully for me. How did you make that decision?
Mff: I tried to think about what I care about as a reader. I thought about Marilyn Robinson, Grace Paley, and Louise Erdrich. They write in very voice-y, first-person perspectives, but as a reader you’re aware you’re being told a story by a writer you like, I love Marylin Robinson so I’m fine with that.
What we require as writers doesn’t always follow the common wisdom. I’m writing in a heightened storytelling tradition. I’m okay with the reader kind of being able to tell they’re being told a story the whole time.
CW: Right, it’s a relationship.
Mff: I think a lot of the work I did to differentiate voices crystallized, came about in second and third drafts. I loved those characters and thought of them as very different from each other. I don’t like when people say in workshop, “Why would they have this quality if they come from that background?” People are intensely various in their thoughts and pursuits. It doesn’t always fall along lines of class and demographics.
And psychology has bled into the workshop, as if we can decode a person from who they are and their background. I have not seen that to be true in life, and it leads to characters in books being overdetermined.
CW: There are competing bodies of knowledge of the land in the novel: the knowledge of local people like Lily and Karen, who do not have college degrees, and of Helen, who is very confident in her college education. Helen “culled cabbage leaves for sauerkraut, but uprooted the plants, killing them. She saved a deer stomach to make blood sausage, but then turned her attention to drying red clover, so the stomach went to black slime. She richocheted back and forth between Appalachian apprentice and holier-than-thou outsider, casually slipping in shit she must have picked up from some college class, spouting opinion as fact.” Lily skewers Helen in her thoughts, but says little aloud because of class and other power dynamics. That silence is really loaded in your novel, especially the silence Karen and Lily maintain about Helen deciding to take the lead on building the home they plan to share—when Karen actually has so much more knowledge and experience in that area.
Mff: Helen has class privilege, and owns the land. If Karen thinks if she speaks up, she won’t have a place to live, that’s about power; it’s simple. But there’s usually a lot more to power dynamics than binaries. More than one thing is true at the same time. Karen has opportunity to leverage personal power, and doesn’t. She is not able to because she feels vulnerable. She’s also resentful of Helen’s privilege and would like to see Helen fail.
CW: Even though Karen and Lily will have to live inside that failure…
Mff: In some way Karen isn’t generous enough. She holds back in a multitude of ways. It takes a lot of generosity to say what you think and feel, and she likes to hold back. In writing the book, I explored how families and partnerships happen, how people live together through conflict and dysfunction. It’s interesting to see how far people will go. All three are complicit.
CW: Many of the chapters are narrated by Perley, Karen and Lily’s son. Your ability to write a child character who is interesting to adult readers has a lot to do, I think, with the way you portray his way of thinking. Not only his perspective as a child but also as a child who lives off the grid, homeschooled, without the mass cultural frameworks most kids operate within referentially and socially. You have two young sons, and as a mother, I could appreciate the realistic depiction of the way the three women parent Perley—their frustrations, all the different ways they mean well and fail, and Perley’s innocent wants, needs, and will, how much Perley’s engagement with the world beyond their compound highlights the fragility of the world they built within it.
Mff: You know your kids so well. And you want to respect them as unknowable people, and suddenly, one thing leads to another, and you’re treating your five-year-old like a pain-in-the-ass roommate who won’t do dishes. Why would an adult treat a kid like this? With Karen and Perley, it’s where they’ve gotten to in their relationship. They know each other so well and she’s not seeing him as a child. Her endeavoring to respect him has led her away from his child self.
CW: That’s so insightful and unfortunately, relatable. Are you working on another novel?
Mff: Yes, I’m working on a novel about generations of a family living in a house, as organized neo-fascism encroaches on their small town, and the way people respond or attempt to stay on the sidelines.
CANDACE WALSH is a first-year PhD creative writing (fiction) student at Ohio University. She wrote Licking the Spoon: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Identity (Seal Press), a New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards winner. She most recently co-edited Greetings from Janeland (Cleis Press, 2017) and Dear John, I Love Jane (Seal Press, 2010), both Lambda Literary Finalists. Her short story “The Sandbox Story” appears in the fiction anthology Santa Fe Noir (Akashic Books). Her novel in progress, Cleave, was longlisted in the 2018 Stockholm Writers Festival’s First Pages Contest. Recent creative nonfiction essays have been published by Brevity, Pigeon Pages, Doubleback Review, the New Limestone Review, K’in Literary Journal, and Into. She’s published craft essays in CRAFT and the Fiction Writers Review, with an essay forthcoming in Descant. She teaches at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and proposed and moderated a 2019 AWP panel on shame and intersectionally marginalized female narrative unreliability. She is a fiction reader for the New Ohio Review.