Exploring the art of prose


Interview: Amelia Gray

alt image: image is a gray and blue book cover for ISADORA; title card for Melissa Benton Barker's new interview with Amelia Gray


The editors at CRAFT are thrilled to welcome Amelia Gray as the guest judge of our 2022 Amelia Gray 2K Contest, which is open to microfiction, flash fiction, and prose poetry pieces under two thousand words. Gray is a novelist and screenwriter as well as the author of three collections of flash fiction: AM/PM, Museum of the Weird, and Gutshot. Her most recent collection, Gutshot, is a masterpiece of the unexpected, a deeply emotional collection wherein each surreal twist or turn cuts deeper into the heart of the matter. Gray’s stories deal in the realm of relationships—frequently romantic ones, but also the complications that occur between friends, or parents and children—the whole messy glut of human experience. Her use of the surreal and the speculative magnifies her characters’ darknesses and vulnerabilities, and her writing is unafraid to venture into disturbing and taboo territory. Her stories leave the reader stunned, bereft, and steeped in wonder. Guest Judge Amelia Gray and CRAFT Flash Fiction Section Editor Melissa Benton Barker corresponded by email to discuss Gray’s creative process and the singular art of flash prose.

Melissa Benton Barker: As a writer who has produced both novels and flash fiction, what do you find particularly compelling about working within the flash form? What are the unique challenges and pleasures of this form?

Amelia Gray: Flash fiction can have the same ambition and scope as a novel, but with an attention to detail impossible in a longer project. Everything must be interrogated, there’s nowhere to hide.


MBB: You also have experience with screenwriting. How does this inform your fiction and vice versa?

AG: I’m still working that out for myself. I will say that plot can be a bit of a fast-spreading weed in fiction, it’s easy to get wrapped up in it and to forget where fiction shines, which for me anyway is in idea.


MBB: Your stories are unafraid to explore topics and images that might seem disturbing or taboo to some readers. For example, in one of my favorite stories from Gutshot, “Date Night,” what begins as a familiar first date scene unravels and winds up in a place that is quite unexpected. (I’m intentionally leaving out specific details, hoping that our readers will seek out this amazing story.) How do your stories find you? Do they begin with image, language, character?

AG: “Date Night” specifically started with an idea which has hounded me for a while, hard to describe the idea but it shows up in an earlier story of mine called “The Vanished”: “The couple was a boy and girl couple, and they were eating love right out in the open. They swallowed great handfuls of love, sticky tangled messes of it, standing nose to nose with one another. They were gorging on the stuff.” I used to say that my novels tend to start with an image while the shorter work starts with an idea, but I’ve proven myself wrong lately.


MBB: Strange occurrences are common in your flash fiction. How do you harness surreal or speculative elements as a writer?

AG: I try to hold lightly to things like that. These days I test myself more: am I using the surreal to cover up for an idea that would function just fine in reality? The surreal isn’t about harnessing, exactly—for me it’s more of a letting go of the reins.


MBB: Some of your short pieces take unusual forms. For example, “The Pit” and “The Movement” in Museum of the Weird, or “Christmas House” and “Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover” in Gutshot. Does form typically follow content in your process, or do you ever start writing with a particular form in mind?

AG: I’ll sometimes have a constraint I give myself, or one will be given. For McSweeney’s I was tasked with writing a story on a balloon, and I had to keep in mind a word limit as well as an idea of how the story would be presented. I ended up writing a story for “Lawnchair Larry” Walters, who took a flight out of San Pedro on a chair strung with weather balloons. I like an exercise that shakes things up. It’s why I jump rope.


MBB: Many of your stories use humor to explore heavy or emotional themes. For example, “The Contest” and “The Lives of Ghosts,” both in Gutshot, explore grief through a lens of the absurd and/or the speculative. In your view, how do these elements illuminate complicated emotional experiences?

AG: Honestly I think it’s more of a personality flaw than anything else.


MBB: How do you approach the process of revision? Do you ever find yourself far from where you might have expected to go when you began writing a particular story?

AG: I don’t tend to end up too far from where I start with a story. Sometimes I don’t understand the point of a story until the revision process, or I think I understand it but then it becomes something else. With longer work there’s more that can change directionally. The longer it gets, the more elements can shift and change between planning, execution, and revision.


MBB: What are the habits, rituals, or environments that facilitate your writing process?

AG: I’m at my best when I can write a little bit of fiction every day. Even half an hour will do the trick. I used to like a little cream while I wrote but it really blew out my gallbladder.


MBB: Which writers of contemporary flash fiction would you recommend to our readers?

AG: For flash: Kathy Fish, Russell Edson, Daniil Kharms, Julio Cortázar, Joe Wenderoth, Lydia Davis.


MBB: What excites you as a reader? What will you be looking for in the pieces that you read for the CRAFT 2022 Amelia Gray 2K Contest?

AG: Precision and risk, ideas beyond language.


MBB: Thank you for taking the time to share your insights with our readers at CRAFT. As we close out our interview, do you have any advice to share with new and emerging writers? What is something you wish you had known at the beginning of your writing journey?

AG: Try not to let fears for the final product distract you from its creation. Toni Morrison: “I stood at the border, stood at the edge and claimed it as central. l claimed it as central, and let the rest of the world move over to where I was.”


AMELIA GRAY is the author of five books, most recently Isadora (FSG). Her fiction and essays have appeared in The New YorkerThe New York TimesThe Wall Street JournalTin House, and VICE. She is a winner of the NYPL Young Lion and of FC2’s Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize, and a finalist for a WGA Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. As a screenwriter, she has written for the shows Maniac (Netflix), Mr. Robot (USA), and Gaslit (Starz), as well as the games Telling Lies (Annapurna Interactive) and Immortality (Half Mermaid). She lives in Los Angeles.


MELISSA BENTON BARKER’s stories appear in Atticus ReviewMoon City ReviewBest Small Fictions, and elsewhere. She is the flash fiction section editor at CRAFT. She lives in Ohio with her family. Find Melissa on Twitter @melissageminid.