Hybrid Interview: Chloe N. Clark
In our hybrid interview series, we pair an author Q&A with a critical essay about one or more of their books. We’re happy to share this conversation between Chloe N. Clark and CRAFT short fiction editorial assistant Jesse Motte, who also essays about Clark’s debut short story collection Collective Gravities. —CRAFT
Essay by Jesse Motte •
In a period of world history characterized largely by mandated physical distancing, Chloe N. Clark’s debut collection, Collective Gravities, is an important reference for navigating inner and outer spaces. The collection, driven by character interiority, prioritizes a sizable thematic scope that blends elements of horror and folklore with the expansive, infinite qualities of space itself. Clark’s depiction of space centers largely on character and appears physically in recurring images like skies, bodies of water, and, yes, “outer space.” Where the collection finds its voice isn’t necessarily in asking the reader to reenvision what space is, rather in its ability to put us in close proximity to character and the weight of identity.
It’s a testament to Clark’s keen ability to subvert expectation that the collection opens not in the sky, but the clothing section. The effect momentarily stuns, mirroring the sense of disorientation that the story’s main character, Ava, an astronaut just returned from space, feels as she struggles to recalibrate not just to Earth’s gravity, but to normality:
Staring at the floor, it seemed to spin. I knew it wasn’t really, but there are things you can tell yourself without believing in them fully… Maybe I shouldn’t have gone out. It was too soon to be surrounded by so many people after so long with so few.
And yet, in this opening story, aptly titled “Balancing Beams,” we do return to outer space, just through memory. Much like Stuart Dybek does, Clark emphasizes memory to navigate the inner space of identity. Whereas in “Balancing Beams” it’s Ava’s “wooziness,” in another story, “12 in Assorted Colors,” it’s gel pens. Often, the resulting interiority creates the shape of the story. For instance, as we touch one aspect of the pen’s emotional history with the speaker, we approach another (in this case, the memory of her childhood friend):
I hadn’t seen scented gel pens since I was a pre-teen, since I wrote poems in Lisa Frank journals and sent letters to my best friend over summer break—when she lived at her father’s three states over and we only talked on the phone once a week.
As the strings of memory unravel, the energy created acts as fodder for how a character handles their present. Sometimes the characters have enough self-awareness to deliberately venture into the past (the first line of this story is, “To get over the man I loved, I bought a pack of scented sparkly gel pens.”); with other stories, the past forces itself onto the present in more subconscious forms, such as dreams and intense or surreal moments. In “Other Names,” the main character, Lance, has a nightmare where his past girlfriend, Alice, is combing her hair when he notices that she’s dripping in blood: “she was digging into her scalp with [the brush].” What’s more, as he tries to go on dates, he keeps fainting. As the story progresses, it’s revealed that Alice died in a car crash along with another friend. Lance had been driving. By the end of the story it’s understood that he must remember everything fully to begin the healing process.
He realized that it was alright. He could say it out loud.
Mira stared at him. “What was her name?”
“Her name was Alice,” he said…
In “The Width of Your Body Apart,” a disease known as the “root sickness” invades its victims’ bloodstreams and wraps around the heart. The narrator, who’s currently fighting the disease herself, reflects on how it has stripped her ability to function normally in the world: “Used to was the word around us now. What we used to be able to do.” It’s an eerie parallel to our own pandemic-stricken world; the speaker’s physical and mental separation from what her life used to be is uncomfortably relatable.
But Clark isn’t here to spoon-feed us comfortable writing. The collection doesn’t shy away from the subject of death and features characters who have been dislocated from themselves by traumas such as sexual violence and tragedies such as the unexpected death of a loved one. In “This is the Color of Your Eyes in the Dark,” the opening even reads, “My best friend that year was Mindy Cosgrove. Ten years later, her car would get into a collision with a drunk driver and she’d be dead and someone would tell me and I’d ask to be reminded who she was…”
As we investigate each of the collection’s characters, it becomes clear that Clark isn’t necessarily as interested in what a character may do next, rather how and why they arrived at their current state. These stories highlight characters who are at the precipice of new awareness, and whether its via memory, the supernatural, or mysterious diseases, they are willing to inhabit these spaces in all their various forms and qualities. And that willingness to feel what’s there, to feel the weight of their own gravities, creates more space for hope, love, and healing.
Jesse Motte: So, Chloe, Collective Gravities isn’t your first book. You’ve actually published three collections of poetry in the last few years. Did you come to writing through poetry and decide later to concentrate on fiction? Do you find a significant relationship within the two forms that makes transitioning between them easier?
Chloe N. Clark: I actually started in fiction and have always considered that my “true love” in writing. However, I find myself unable to not write poetry. There’s a lot about it that makes me bristle, but poetry’s rhythm and concision really call to me. Poetry can feel very distant and purposefully obtuse, while fiction can sometimes be too straightforward or lyrically removed. So, for me, it’s important to let those qualities bleed together in each form. Ultimately, transitioning between the two becomes easier for me because, whether my poetry’s more narratively cohesive or my fiction is more metaphorical, I’m already carrying forward something from the other.
JM: The opening story, “Balancing Beams,” follows an astronaut who’s recently returned to Earth. But something isn’t right. There’s a mysterious tension driving this piece that’s never explicitly stated. Is a part of horror writing to let audience imaginations fill in blanks? And how does this opening story set up the thematic role of space throughout the collection?
CNC: Horror (and life) are always scariest when my imagination is allowed to answer the questions rather than relying on logic, so I absolutely agree with you on the roles of audience imagination. I think that’s how the majority of us learn to be scared, too, right? As children, we fill in the blanks in ways that linger with us into adulthood (that rattling at the door is no longer a monster, but an intruder). Our fear has been replaced with more “ordinary” and even normal anxieties like sending our children to school in a time when violence is always around the corner or that we might be exposed to a virus because someone else chooses to not follow the same safety measures as us. But, all of those things still are rife with the unknown: we can’t predict or comprehend why violence will be committed or where the danger might be, only that we know it’s likely. This is something that keeps becoming more and more important to think about and explore.
And we’re dealing with that kind of fear right now with COVID-19. My partner who works in the space industry took part in an isolation analogue, where he and five others were kept inside an isolated dome near an active volcano in Hawaii, for eight months. The goal was to simulate what an experience of a Mars habitation might do psychologically to people: only seeing a few other people, losing communication with a wider social net, not going outside without precautions in place, having communication delays, etc. So, he gained a lot of experience with controlled isolation well before we all had to take part in our own social distancing, and he brought up the idea that we really don’t have an end date to quarantine or to the precautions and life adjustments we have to make. And that makes this all the more frightening. For everyone. It’s that unknown factor at play—will this be months? Years? And what will that cause for our relationships and interactions with the world outside of ourselves? The way we fill in those blanks for ourselves is what determines how we cope and plan for things. Our own minds are always going to be scarier than something a writer could explicitly state for us.
“Balancing Beams” really hits a lot of what I’m interested in with regards to space—that constant clash between excitement for exploring and the fear that comes with it. The markings on old maps that demonstrated dangerous areas, such as the apocryphal “Here There Be Dragons,” aren’t there anymore because we now have measurable ways of understanding why something is dangerous. That being said, it’s an intellectual understanding, because loss and sacrifice are still things we don’t fully comprehend until they happen to us. In space, there’s always that possibility of death, no matter the redundancies in place to avoid this, and it’s something I imagine hangs above the heads of everyone doing this work. What is the cost of seeking?
JM: More often than not, we’re experiencing storytelling through nonlinear means: flashbacks, frame stories, flash forwards, dreamlike sequences. How do you come out on the other side of clarity when working with more complicated structures? What doors do you expect to open or close when you apply multiple layers to a story?
CNC: The honest answer to this question is that my mind works non-linearly. I’m very pattern oriented, so a lot of times if I think of one image, I’m immediately associating it with every other picture or idea available. So, this way has much more clarity for me than a straightforward path. I see narrative as the patterns lives make—the repetitions of choices or the way memories might lead us toward certain trajectories when we can’t find a way to free ourselves from them, rather than the A–Z of it. This allows me to address the aspects that make up the actual meat of the story rather than focusing solely on narrative progression. The characters, their history, and how they generally navigate in the world is the story to me, more so than the actual plot arc being imposed on them.
That’s also how most people experience things, too: we reflect, we organize, and sort the data of our lives when we’re going through something. So, it also has a lived-truth feeling to it. I think that allows me to open doors of understanding a whole character or a whole situation rather than just the moment(s) the story takes place in. It will sound cheesy to say, but I don’t think moments happen in and of themselves—a moment is made up of all the history that led up to it. And that history is comprised of choices—both ones we make and don’t make, consciously or unconsciously. But I’m less interested in the ultimate choice itself, I want to know how and why we arrived at that moment.
JM: Many of these characters are in different stages of the grieving process, sometimes without even realizing it. And more often than not that grief coincides with the surreal. What is it about tragedy and trauma that invites the surreal?
CNC: Our brains are these miraculous and disastrous things, I always go back to my own experiences with auratic migraines (a visual aura that precedes migraines; mine manifests as perceiving light in “incorrect” ways) and aphasia (losing the ability to remember and/or say words), which has affected me since my late teens. That stress, or even something as simple as allergens, can impact the way I process visual data and speech. The whole experience was and still is mind-blowing (I guess sort of literally in this case) and made me fascinated to explore how the brain works during trauma or emotional upheaval. I think everyone’s experience of grief, of trauma, is surreal in some way. The way we perceive time can literally shift when we’re experiencing these intense emotions. Our senses can be amplified or dulled, depending. Your brain is firing in a thousand ways and that means it’s going to be misfiring, too, which can lead to perceiving the world around us in ways we aren’t used to—becoming more attuned to a sensory trigger, or our brains interpreting those in incorrect ways. So, I think there’s this invitation to explore the surreal because it’s already there. Bringing in a ghost or a demon dog is just acknowledging that grief and trauma don’t necessarily follow the shapes we expect, it’s just the teasing it out that becomes the writerly aspect.
JM: I recently read an essay you wrote for Ploughshares, “To Trope or Not to Trope,” in which you argue that by deliberately subverting tropes, writers gain the power to produce “a greater commentary” on them. Specifically, you focus on tropes associated with women, citing stories like “Midwestern Girl Is Tired of Appearing in Your Short Stories” by Gwen E. Kirby and Cathy Ulrich’s “Being the Murdered Wife.” In the essay you write that “the ways we view women through the male gaze is [ ] problematic…” Is the act of subverting tropes associated with women a form of activism for you? What role do writers, specifically male writers, have in deconstructing tropes about women? And, most importantly, how can writers avoid gimmicky subversive writing?
CNC: On one hand, I have a background of intense folklore study, so it’s easier to see the ways tropes are used and created. On the other hand, my area of scholarship is Monster Theory and Othering—so I also am very cognizant of how tropes are used to create barriers for any group who we want to other or to antagonistically shape the narrative around. Every writer should stay cognizant of the way in which the tropes they are using or subverting contribute to narrative. The way to do that often comes down to actually understanding what you’re trying to subvert in the first place: Why is this trope problematic? Who does it harm? How did it come to be?
On some level, it’s a form of activism—any kind of writing that engages in empathy and/or questioning is a form of activism. I’m interested in the ways we’ve marginalized groups of people and I’m engaged in fighting back against that.
Male writers need to be active in the ways they use tropes: Are they writing femme fatales over and over? What kind of image does that promote? How are you contributing to this trope’s place in society? But, I also want to stress that subversion, in and of itself, isn’t the end game. If you’re like, “I want to write Frankenstein, but I’ll subvert it by making Frankenstein a woman!” and then you just write the same narrative—it’s not subversion, it’s just a new form of reiteration.
JM: Personally, I’m scared of everything. You could put googly eyes on a tomato and I’d scream. But your characters are hardly intimidated by the scary or the surreal. In fact, they’re incredibly curious. How do you establish and maintain suspense in a story that reframes traditional horror elements? And in a genre so overstuffed with recycled content, where are the entry points for experimentalism?
CNC: Much like when the Hulk turns and says that his secret is “I’m always angry,” my secret to writing horror is that I’m always scared. Not necessarily of monsters or ghosts but definitely by loss, grief, by the possibilities of all the damage the world can inflict on us. I do tend to love what people find scary (I’m the first person to want to pet a snake or see a shark) but I’m also the first person to get creeped out in a horror movie. I carry my fear in front of me because I think it’s easiest to be brave when you know you’re scared. Which leads to the other side of the equation: Because I’m scared of everything, I’m also deeply curious about it. I like to understand what I’m scared of because that’s a good way to get control of fear. My characters reflect that: when facing the unknown, they want to know it.
I’d say the most conscious way I try to create and maintain suspense is by deliberately stretching time out or condensing it past what a reader might expect. I also like to raise the uncanny levels if possible. I think the “slightly off” is always more terrifying than the overtly and explicitly all caps “SCARY.”
I read and watch a lot of horror, so I have a pretty big personal encyclopedia of what’s been done. I also think about horror a lot by studying the history and rhetoric behind it. So, my ability to experiment comes down to the same reason you can experiment as a cook: once you’ve made enough dishes, you have basic understanding of how everything works so why not add a new spice? A film I see as working similarly, at least how I saw it, would have to be Annihilation, which turns trauma and grief into environmental manifestations. I love the idea of trauma as this huge force of change and de- (and re-) construction of place and self. Ultimately, everything can be horror, it’s how you manage the elements.
JM: There’s a transitional component to these stories. Ghosts still lingering on Earth, the dead rising, the past resurfacing within characters’ psyches; it’s almost as if there’s a certain quality rendering people, places, things, even time itself, as stuck. Is this a stylistic choice, or something else?
CNC: As a writer, I am legally required to be obsessed with liminality. There is something fascinating about transitional spaces and beings. There are ghosts as transitional beings, of course, but there’s also the way life can force the transitional onto us. If you go through a loss, you change as a person pre- and post-loss. It’s a remaking of self, and what is more transitional than that?
However, there’s also something deeply unsettling and potentially tragic about being continuously in a state between. Many of us are in this limbo to some degree—maybe we have a lot of regrets and find it hard to move on from the past; maybe we are always imagining the future and unable to truly enjoy the present. So, it’s something I come back to again and again as a writer—what are the things that keep my characters in limbo? And how does that state of limbo dictate how they live? I mentioned before that I’m deeply invested in choices, and inaction (many times inaction is the most disastrous) is one of the biggest choices we make.
JM: Earlier you mentioned a background in monster theory and othering. The story that immediately comes to mind for me is “A Reunion of Waves,” where the main character has just returned from jail for beating her sister’s abuser into a coma. There’s a kind of awkward tension in the air as she reunites with her friends. Is there a cyclical quality to othering when paired with something like violence or trauma? And how does choice play into something so seemingly uncontrollable?
CNC: Othering happens when groups, typically ones in power, work to retain control. That need for control results in a lot of different issues, but I concentrate the most on systemic violences. The central question of this field of study is how and why do we use othering to create and reinforce systems that control and remove agency from groups? Monster theory looks at the ways othering is handled through fear rhetoric. Much of monster folklore has portrayed the means of controlling people. And that’s evolved a lot so, today, it’s both more insidious and complicated.
In regards to choice and othering, they’re really two sides of the same coin. Violence is often a result of the two and is rooted in the denial or stripping away of agency. A lot of the choices we make in life are predicated on events that occurred before the choice itself; if we choose to walk down this path or that path, why? If you’re a woman, maybe you chose one path because it had more people on it or was better lit. You’ve had your agency cut down, without your really thinking about it. The same can be said of someone who commits a crime, what choices were revoked for them—by society’s policies or history—before they came to that moment.
Certainly, we can say there is some cyclicality to violence and othering. Especially when we are careful to look at violence as something systemic and not just physical. It’s too simple to think of it as completely cyclical though, because the othering in place is almost always the root of the violence, and othered individuals are far more often the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators. The real cycle at work is how societies continuously recreate systems of othering.
The same can be said, in many ways, for trauma. We definitely other people who have been traumatized, particularly in the US. There’s a way we treat people who are traumatized or grieving that creates barriers for them. Look at the mental healthcare system. Look at how survivors of assault are treated. Look at even the way we talk about school shootings—we put the emphasis on the rights of everyone other than the children and teachers: we literally train children to survive active shooters rather than approach the violence where it starts. It’s all about the agency we, as a society, are willing to give to some people and not others.
So, that plays a large role in the collection because I feel like many of my characters have had some of their agency taken from them. In a story like “Lover, I’ll be Waiting,” there’s domestic abuse at the core of the character’s actions. In “Bounce Pass,” I wanted to explore mental health and the active way we have of avoiding these issues.
JM: I’m interested in the title of this book, Collective Gravities. Unless we’re standing on our feet all day, we might not notice gravity at all. Similarly, a kind of psychological gravity might be less noticeable if the circumstances aren’t right. What makes gravity recognizable to these characters? And what’s its importance in how each of their stories play out and in context of the collection at large?
CNC: The title and the gravities are twofold. Actual stars have a collective gravity of their mass that pulls them in on themselves, which eventually causes them to collapse into smaller and smaller stars. But, the force of the light in stars pushes outward, so the gravity and the light are in constant push and pull essentially. I loved that idea—both on a purely scientific level but also as a metaphor for the collective forces we all carry around: what’s the gravity that’s pushing against us and what is the light pushing against it? That concept defines all the characters in this collection: that constant push inward and outward.
And then there is the more story-by-story interpretation—what is the gravity for each story? What weighs on the characters? What ties them to the ground? Gravity isn’t necessarily bad or good, and I want that reflected in these stories. We all carry around our own gravities, how does that help us relate to the world and the people around us?
CHLOE N. CLARK is the author of Collective Gravities, Your Strange Fortune, The Science of Unvanishing Objects, Under My Tongue, and the forthcoming Escaping the Body. She is a Founding co-EIC of Cotton Xenomorph, writes for Nerds of a Feather, and can be found on Twitter @PintsNCupcakes.
JESSE MOTTE graduated from Winthrop University in December 2018 with a degree in English and a concentration in creative writing. He’s a reader for Witness, an intern at Word West, and an editorial assistant, reader, and interviewer for CRAFT. He’s published a book review with DIAGRAM.