Writing Our Current Moment: An Interview with Holly Goddard Jones

In Holly Goddard Jones’s second collection of short fiction, Antipodes (University of Iowa Press), readers will find mysteries both large and small: a widening abyss, a sudden hunger for dirt, a figure haunting multiple video games, the contentment of a man who seems to have lost everything. The characters encountering these mysteries seem so normal that they could be your neighbors, your friends—even you. In the title story, the narrator is, on the one hand, the Historian of a temple guarding an abyss, but on the other, a mother struggling to get her toddler to daycare on time. In “Visitation,” a character discovers a bizarre creature in his video games while riding out the COVID pandemic at his parents’ house, secretly drinking in his boyhood bedroom and feeling insulted when his father asks him to wash the dishes after his mother makes dinner. Every character in the book feels like a person you might run into in the checkout line at your local grocery store. (In fact, the mysteriously contented man in “Swallows” is a cashier at Harris Teeter.)

I first met Holly almost twenty years ago, when we were both graduate students in the MFA program at The Ohio State University, and even then, I was impressed by the meticulous attention to the details of her characters’ worlds and psychologies. Now, she is the author of two excellent short story collections and two gripping novels, and she is an associate professor in the MFA program at UNC Greensboro. While conducting this interview with her over Zoom, I realized how lucky her students are to have a teacher who turns the same generous focus she pays to her characters on her students and their work.


Danielle LaVaque-Manty: In the acknowledgments at the back of Antipodes, you say your students inspired you to experiment with fabulism, and I’m seeing movement from pretty strict realism in your first collection, Girl Trouble, and your first novel, The Next Time You See Me, to some near future speculative fiction in your second novel, The Salt Line, and this story collection, which has a mix of realism in stories like “Fortress” and “Shelter,” as well as fabulism and speculative elements in “Antipodes,” “Distancing,” and “Visitation.” So, I’m wondering: How did your students inspire you to experiment? And are you writing in multiple modes these days, or are you pursuing one more than others?

Holly Goddard Jones: For a while, writers like Karen Russell have been gaining popularity, publishing in the New Yorker, and so I think even since you and I were in graduate school it has felt like the magical real in literary fiction has become more mainstream, and that filtered down to students, who were interested in experimenting with those sorts of forms. I always appreciated them without really feeling like I had anything to contribute. I had a student who brought in Carmen Maria Machado’s story “Eight Bites” for a graduate workshop where I asked each of the students to bring a short story that they had found formative or inspiring. This was not long after Her Body and Other Parties had come out, and so I read that collection, and I felt like that version of fabulism spoke to me differently than some other versions that lean more toward the whimsical. Machado was pretty relentlessly dark in her exploration and was playing with tropes of horror that had always been interesting to me as a reader, and so there was something in her work that clicked with me. And then reading a lot of George Saunders. Not long before that, I think, Tenth of December had come out. Those stories are more dystopian than fabulist, but they interact with the weirdness of our world in a way that is sort of gleefully detached from our reality while also saying things about our reality that maybe realism can’t say.

So, while having the students bring in this work and then start writing fabulism, at first, I was just trying to figure out, okay, why am I as a reader responding to certain elements of this fabulist story and not others? I think a fundamental question that I always brought into my responses was, if anything is allowed, how as a reader do I measure my own sense of disbelief? If the story is inherently unbelievable, what does disbelief mean in that context? I was trying to help my students write the best possible versions of these stories that they could and getting to know the genre better in doing so.

For example, one of my students brought in a story by Kelly Link called “The Hortlack.” It has a sinkhole in it—or, not a sinkhole, but an abyss outside of a gas station. It has zombies coming up and down from this abyss under the earth. Not long after reading that story, I started to think about a kind of tone of holy awe, and the world in which something like that might exist. To the best that I am able to recall, that was the genesis of my story “Antipodes.” I was imagining a story in the voice of a character in a contemporary context participating in something on the scale of erecting a pyramid, something that feels like a plea to the heavens, an appeal to a higher power. A Hail Mary in a world that is desperately on the edge of collapse. I started writing and it just kind of poured out as if I were transcribing it rather than really working at it. And that’s unique. That doesn’t normally happen for me.

With that story in particular, I had been trying to figure out how to write about perinatal depression, postpartum depression, the many conflicted feelings that I’ve had about raising children, and the world that we now occupy, and I felt the simultaneous need to document what I was feeling and terror at forcing myself to confront those anxieties too closely. I couldn’t think of a way to write an essay about it, and so I think I understood what fabulism can do when I realized I could use it to get at that material in a way that didn’t force me to autobiographically confront my own complex feelings about all of those subjects. And so, with the collection as a whole, how these fabulist stories interact with the realistic ones, the idea is that they’re all kind of existing in this weird reality that I don’t understand. In some ways, the realistic stories for me are also just as strange and dreamlike and removed from the world I thought I knew as the fabulist ones are.

I really appreciated the very contemporary world of these stories, with the COVID pandemic, and video games, social media, texting, and climate concerns. They feel very much of the present. Actually, when I read “Ark,” I had to look up agrobots to see if they were real or a speculative invention of yours. Could tell me how you think about temporality as part of setting, and if you talk to your students about that, how do you talk to them about portraying the present?

I just had a conversation with my undergraduates about writing about our current moment, and with the undergraduates, I’ve found that they really don’t want to. I’m getting a lot of fantasy in my undergraduate workshops right now. It’s interesting to see, over the course of my teaching career, the kinds of genre categories that the undergraduates have cycled through. There have been vampires and there have been zombies. And for a while they were really into writing dystopian fiction. And I think for obvious reasons that’s not appealing to a lot of them now, although I did just get a very good dystopian story from one student. But yeah, lots of medieval style fantasy stories, romances, and adventure stories. We have talked about, you know, how do you write about this moment? We were having this conversation after reading “The Finkelstein Five,” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, and the way that it takes on violence against Black people and the institutional failures to hold people accountable for these sorts of acts. And they really liked the story. But they also expressed a lot of distaste for the idea of doing their own writing about the traumas that we are currently living through.

With my grad students, there’s not necessarily a categorical fear of writing about where we are now, but maybe more of a craft fear, which is just, how do I even know what to say? I don’t have any distance on this. I don’t have the necessary perspective on this. So, a lot of the writing that they’re doing is realistic and contemporary. But it’s contemporary up to a 2019 moment. Or it seems like it’s maybe occupying our reality, but in a reality where COVID is not dictating the granular nature of day-to-day life.

I have a grad student who wrote a story that is written in a mode similar to that of the Family Fang. In this story, there are children whose mother and father were professional clowns and who raised the daughters to be part of this clowning act, and one of the daughters was really in love with that lifestyle and grew up to want be a clown as well, and the other one rejected it. The story picks up at a moment in their adulthood where the parents are basically out of money and want to live with the daughter who rejected clowning. So, they’re leaning on her for her financial stability, which exists because she rejected the lifestyle that they kind of felt she was “lesser than” for rejecting. One of the things that we talked about with that story was that maybe COVID could offer an interesting backdrop because there’s this financial crisis that hits the parents, but it’s kind of abstract, and COVID seems like the kind of thing that would immediately and dramatically impact people whose profession is going to kids’ birthday parties and doing public performances and interacting with crowds. So, in that case, I think bringing COVID in appealed to her because the way to tackle something as big as COVID is to think about how it has practical impacts on…not small things. It’s not small, whether you can survive financially or not. But it’s not necessarily structural. It’s not the hyperobject of, you know, existence. It’s how a pandemic on a practical level impacts one family.

I think she could see her way into possibly writing about COVID because she wasn’t writing about COVID in giant screaming neon letters. And that’s the aspect of our contemporary moment that I can wrap my head around—the granular way it impacts day-to-day life, the ways that it changes us culturally on a smaller scale. All of that really interests me; I actually find it kind of fun to write that, as long as I’m not tasking myself with the burden of thinking about the huge structural hyperobject of the pandemic and its threat to human existence.

What about social media and technology? These details also help make your fictional worlds feel real. We recognize the video games, or at least we feel like we could, even if we don’t. Does choosing those details come easily? Is it hard to figure out which ones to include or exclude? Your use of the language of texting, too—how people actually text and their word choice—were details I also appreciated in these stories.

Thanks. I found the texting to be tricky in some ways because we have, you know, auto correct and predictive text. I loved Jennifer Egan’s book A Visit from the Goon Squad, but its attempts to anticipate what texting might look like in the future feels dated now because it didn’t take into account predictive text, and so everything is abbreviated in the way that it would have been back when you had to hit a button three times to change the letter on the phone. So, people would say CU L8ter, or something like that, and that hasn’t proven to be the way that we text now. I tried to find a balance between recognizing how predictive text anticipates what people will write and even changes our syntax and structures, and the casual nature of texting. How do I recreate that? Especially as someone who does some texting but is certainly not native to it in the way that people younger than me are. So, I’m glad you thought I captured it well, because I felt very uncertain about how to accurately recreate the rhythms of that.

To me, a hallmark of your work is a close third-person POV where the physical world is really well detailed in ways that reveal the character’s perceptions and inner life. Your first-person stories also do that, but they’re rare, only one or two in each collection. So, I’m wondering why “Ark,” for example, is in first person instead of third?  

I definitely lean toward third person. I feel like this is probably more instinctive than purposeful. The thing I find tricky about first person is that there’s always the question of, okay, how much does this narrator understand about their own situation? And what would they be willing to say about it? And so you’re constantly navigating questions like, how much do I trust this narrator, and what do I think of this narrator’s intellect? The first question is interesting to me. But it’s only interesting in very, very specific situations, and a lot of times I would rather be able to look more nakedly at a character and see them in ways that they’re only going to be able to access on a subconscious level.

The second question, about intellect, was one that I faced with “Ark.” I find this tricky because I don’t feel comfortable positioning myself in a place of superiority to my characters. That might sound like a moral statement or something, and I don’t mean for it to be, it’s just pure discomfort. So, with that story, I wrote it in first person because I was interested in writing about multi-level marketing. I’ve been kind of fascinated by multi-level marketing for a while, really fascinated by the mindset of people who can become convinced that multi-level marketing will work for them. It strikes me as a ubiquitous grift, and also a grift that is a not-so-nefarious version of bigger grifts that are pulled on similar populations of people. The big grift would be QAnon, or something like that, and then the small version of the grift would be…Amway? I’ll just say Amway. I think I was interested in the spectrum of being susceptible to a kind of cult think, a cult think based in mainstream religious values and a sort of mesh between capitalism and spirituality, the belief that capitalism is moral. I wanted to try to write a character who seems like she could genuinely be susceptible to those worldviews and yet who can sort of see it for what it is at the same time. First person felt like the right choice to try to accomplish that, but it was definitely tricky for me to figure out, okay, how articulate can this voice be? When am I honestly capturing her perspective, and when am I making a caricature out of her? Does the reader finish the story feeling like they sympathize with her, or do they finish it feeling like they stand smugly in judgment of her and the people around her? And first person I think forces me into that uncomfortable spot of navigating those choices more often than a close third person does.

A lot of times I would rather be able to look more nakedly at a character and see them in ways that they’re only going to be able to access on a subconscious level.

I think I particularly registered that “Ark” was in first person because I perceived her to have a worldview that seems very different from what I know of yours, and one that you might even find objectionable. I think you did an awesome job. I mean, I am unlikely to spend time with someone like her in the real world, but I liked her.

I think I was trying to figure out how I could like a person in this sphere, and what qualities she would have to have for me to like her despite the fundamental differences between us. And one specific way was that there was something in the relationship she had with her husband that drew on things that feel very natural and familiar to me—the way that they would joke around with each other. If they can joke around with each other in that way I know them a little better than maybe it would seem like I could know them based on who they might vote into office and the belief systems they subscribe to.

But in “Antipodes,” I think that was one where I just gave myself permission to write in first person but to write in a voice that feels, I’ll just say, not that dissimilar from the way that I would write my own first-person experience if I were telling a story about building a temple over an abyss. So, that’s a hard thing for me to do because I normally feel like the prose or the structure of the story should somehow be subservient to the character who is the focus of the story, but part of the freedom of fabulism was that the weirdness could extend even into the choice of how to narrate this. So, okay, maybe she is a middle-aged mother of three who hasn’t completed a college degree yet, and would that person write this way or speak this way? Maybe not. Or maybe. But I’ll do what I want.

Another difference between Girl Trouble and Antipodes is the presence of violence, I guess I would say, in the stories in Girl Trouble, while nothing truly violent happens in Antipodes, which is not a good thing or a bad thing—I’m just curious about your thinking about violence in your stories then versus now.

I wrote Girl Trouble across my twenties, and I had led, I think, a pretty pleasant, sheltered life. Not that I’ve had so many extraordinary rough experiences since then, but a lot of my sense of the world came out of books rather than experiences, and a lot of the books that I enjoyed reading were explicitly violent genre fiction. I also had the sense in my twenties—I don’t know how clear I would have been on this at the time, but looking back I can see it—that as a woman writer, a way to be taken seriously was to write stories that reject the domestic sphere. It felt like a radical act to write explicitly violent stories, to write about these rough-hewn characters. It felt weighty and serious. I think that’s part of it. And I would have been afraid to write the kinds of stories that are in Antipodes because they would have seemed to me to be soft and domestic, and, you know, trivial, compared to the big masculine stories in Girl Trouble.

Another big difference: I don’t remember exactly what the balance between male perspectives and female perspectives was in Girl Trouble, but it was something like six to two or five to three, and that balance is reversed in Antipodes. For Antipodes, I also wrote about characters with whom I have things in common. I have a character who is a writer, and characters who are women in their 30s and then 40s, which had also felt to me like something that I had to reject before. I thought I wasn’t writerly enough if I wasn’t inventing characters who were markedly different from me, that the process of invention required me to demonstrate that I could conjure these distinct selves. Now I have relieved myself of the burden of always having to do that.

There are a lot of parent and child and spouse interactions in these stories but I still don’t know that I would describe them as “domestic,” except maybe for “Axis,” which features a mother and her childless daughter discussing their thoughts about parenthood.

I was thinking about this the other day. What constitutes a domestic story? Almost anything could fall under that umbrella, except something perhaps happening on the battlefield or exclusively in the workplace. Any story that enters the home and deals on some level with the relationships within that home has domestic elements. Even a story like “Fortress,” about Eldon the designer, is domestic in a sense. It’s about a solitary man who lives a lonely existence in a lot of ways, but it’s sort of the ultimate domestic story in that it’s about how he builds his nest and the pleasure that he derives from that nest, and what that space says about him—how it protects and shields him. Adjectives like “domestic” are probably inherently problematic and not very accurate.

This resonates with your story “Machine,” where your character is writing what her ex-partner calls “domestic stories.” I liked her perception that her ex’s stories were actually more similar to each other than her own stories were, and her realization that she hadn’t noticed this, thanks to gender norms, until she’d read them the third time.

I think that character is wrestling with a lot of the author’s questions about what these things even mean, and what value we assign to stories that fit what we say is one category or another.

I want to ask about the rhythms of your prose. You are a master of the long, unfurling sentence, and I could probably find a lovely long, unfurling sentence on almost any page. Here’s one from “Swallows”:

He was not simple in the air quote, wink-wink sense, but there was something simple about him, after all, though Robin came to believe it was the simplicity of a shaker chair, a crisp white sail, a—she was preparing one of her solitary meals as she thought this—green salad dressed with good quality vinegar and oil.

Do such sentences just spontaneously come onto the page for you, or is there a lot of revision involved in getting the rhythms that you want in your prose? And how do you think about revising at the sentence level?

I feel conscious as I draft of wanting to vary my sentence structures. Something kind of meditative or instinctive kicks in. But I’ll feel conscious sometimes that, “Okay, you’re just listing, Holly, stop listing,” and there will be times where it feels like I’m trying to write a certain kind of florid, elevated prose, and I’m doing it in an artificial way, and I know that it’s artificial because I’m doing something like just stringing a list of clauses together or you know just tracking objects in a space. I think when I’m happy with it is when I’m recreating a thought process. One of the things I really like about a close third person is that you can get the prose right there, into their heads. In those cases, the length is there, and the complexity of syntax is there, because I am trying to track a character’s thought process as she is thinking.

I do a lot of prose revising as I draft, and so I tend to do a lot of rereading. I’ll write for the day, and I’ll reread paragraphs as I go and then add on. I’ll add a couple of paragraphs and then I’ll go back to the top and I’ll read down back to what I had just written and add a little bit more and go back to the top again. So, the drafting process for me is really recursive. I’m always listening for repetitions. Am I repeating these words in a clunky way? Is the syntax too similar to the syntax of the previous sentence? But some of it is not a thing that I’m doing on a fully conscious level. It’s hard to talk about that level of the writing process.

Holly Goddard Jones (Photo by Angela Winsor)

Do you talk to your students about sentence-level choices? What do you say to them?

I do. It’s a harder thing for me to talk about globally, you know, to put up something on an overhead and say, “Here’s a typical kind of sentence writing issue and how you fix it.” I mean, there may be a few things like that I can talk about. With undergraduates, for instance, I might show them an example of a string of dialogue in a scene where you have attributive tag, participial phrase, attributive tag, participial phrase, and so there becomes a sing-song cadence to it. “Don’t go in there, she said, bristling with fear. But I need to, he said, giving her a dark look.” This might be a global kind of thing I would point out, like take note of the fact that you’re repeating this this sort of construction.

With grad students, we’ll meet one on one, and I’ll walk through a manuscript and point out places where a line feels disingenuous to me, or a line feels like it’s making a comparison that’s not quite apt, or that’s outside of the point of view. I’ll do a lot of strikethroughs and say, “I actually think you convey the sentiment with these lines, but for some reason you go on an additional two lines and overexplain the idea, and if you cut those two lines it reads like this and I actually think that sounds really good, what do you think?” And they’ll often agree. That’s something I think I’ve become better at as I’ve gotten older, the art of cutting and knowing when to stop, but maybe I’m better at seeing it in other people’s work than I am in my own.

Are you reading in any systematic way right now, or do you just pick up whatever inspires you at the moment? Aside from what you have to read for teaching. 

To be honest—I don’t know if I should admit to this—but I sort of use my academic classes as a way to get the vegetables into my literary diet. I know that I’m going to be reading the stuff that has literary weight and critical acclaim, or that at least would be controversial in interesting ways, and I’ll assign that to students and read along with them. For myself I tend at night to read something that I just feel like reading. I read sci-fi, crime procedurals, thrillers. Right now, I’m reading Billy Summers, by Stephen King. I read a Michael Connelly book before that. And there’s a sci-fi writer whose work I’ve really come to love named Tom Sweterlitsch. I read his second novel, which I think is just terrific, called The Gone World, maybe in September last year, and now I picked up his first novel, which I also really liked, called Tomorrow and Tomorrow. I don’t have habits that I think are particularly elevating or aspirational. I just read what seems interesting to me and what I can focus on when I’m trying to get ready to wind my mind down at night.

I think it might be a relief for some people to hear that. And I won’t ask you to name any vegetables, but it’s good to hear what counts as dessert.