Work around the tree was going well. The tree’s roots disrupted the ground and the area needed to be smoothed and resodded. The men with the shovels exerted themselves under the shade of the tree. One man, an usher at the local church, swung a shovel full of peat back farther than he had intended. The shovel glanced off a gravestone and chipped off its corner, sending the stone flying into the high grass.
The sound rang out across the field, a light metal ping, and stopped the crowd. People craned their heads to see which grave had been damaged. A few dropped their rags and tools where they stood and walked closer. Wiping their foreheads on their shirt collars, they squinted at the stone.
It was the grave of an upstanding member of the community, a woman who had been well-loved when she died twenty years prior. Most of her children were in attendance, and her young grandchildren played hide-and-seek behind the graves. The man whose shovel had caused the damage put his hand over his mouth and looked away.
The woman’s oldest son, who had been on tree duty as well, stepped forward to inspect the damage. He ran his finger along the stone at its sheared point. The granite wasn’t very old, but the surface had dulled after years of rain and sun. His mother’s name was still clearly marked, but the carved grooves had begun to fill with grime. A line of earth clung where the shovel had struck, and the stone above had given way to the bright, fresh material that had been hidden inside. It sparkled with quartz and mica, gleaming like the stream behind the family home did after a long rain.
—from “Monument" (Unstuck #1)
Amelia Gray is the author of the story collections AM/PM and Museum of the Weird, and a novel, THREATS.
Interview by Janalyn Guo
UNSTUCK: “Monument” starts with work and ends with cathartic destruction. There is the way in which we are supposed to display grief, an acceptable form, and the takeover of a new, rawer form. I’d like to hear your thoughts on the social cues present in our culture around grief.
AMELIA GRAY: There's no wrong way to grieve. Wailing in the grocery aisle is a correct way. The absence of grieving accompanied by an internal guilt is one. Attending a ceremony, going home and burying all your paper clips is one. Social cues are okay; I think they help other people deal with us when we're grieving, but you've got to forgive yourself for the internal process as well, the thoughts your brain can't help but think. Self-forgiveness isn't a huge part of American culture.
UNSTUCK: I’d love to hear more about that last thought—about self-forgiveness not being a big part of our culture, and how you see that playing out.
AMELIA GRAY: I mean, we’re more of a personal accountability kind of culture. People see that that Octomom woman is getting her hair done while she’s on welfare, they want to see her strung up. And then I guess we’re alone in our rooms later, presumably thinking about all the awful shit we do on a regular basis. Meanness towards other people is generally all about guilt or meanness towards oneself, don’t you think? Most of the meanness I’ve experienced from other people has been pretty transparent in that way.
UNSTUCK: I like that “Monument” suggests a resistance to traditional forms, a new playing field of sorts, and it just feels like the perfect opening piece for a journal like Unstuck. Could you talk a little bit about what it means to you to chip away at the old and start anew?
AMELIA GRAY: All literary journals should be started the way Unstuck was, with the idea that there needed to be a new voice out there. And whenever something new comes along, the old guard shouldn't be vaporized. There's probably some satisfaction in bulldozing a graveyard but you're still left with the same bodies, the same space. It's the chipping away that provides that nice contrast.
UNSTUCK: Who are some of your favorite innovators in fiction?
AMELIA GRAY: What’s interesting about the term “innovation” is that it’s not just about uniqueness—it’s about uniqueness being accepted in the culture at large. So, I’m in love with these unique Thierry Lasry sunglasses I saw this past weekend, but I wouldn’t say they’re a mass-market kind of product. Talking about true innovation in fiction means bandying about some familiar names, because you’re talking about the people who have managed to slip something better into the standard practice. So, I don’t know, Joyce Carol Oates?
UNSTUCK: You mention innovation is uniqueness accepted in the culture at large, and I’m curious about your thoughts on work that is not quite accepted because it’s "ahead of its time"—like, say, Twin Peaks.
It seems that there's this trend in the publishing world where the big publishing houses are seeing their most dismal numbers during the recession but the small presses are seeing their best numbers yet. I like this phenomenon. I suppose more people are searching for the kind of work that they like and not necessarily what appeals on a broad level.
AMELIA GRAY: I think that access will define the next generation of fiction, and I think that the big publishing houses are becoming more agile and accessible, themselves following the small-press model. Look at big box stores like Target, which is doing its best to feature smaller brands. I was just at Target to buy a board game and a pack of gum and it was all "The Shops We Fell in Love With, Collected and Curated For You." That's exactly what the big presses are doing right now, and it's because these houses employ people who love reading at the fringes. My editor at FSG found me because she read my first book, AM/PM, put out by featherproof books in Chicago. So I think that innovation has always been a part of the culture, but I hope to see it even more easily accessed with all of our e-readers and baby presses and imprints.
UNSTUCK: Are you captivated by graveyards? Do you visit them?
AMELIA GRAY: I'm most interested in the forgotten graveyards. If you fly a certain route into the airport in Austin, you can see a little graveyard right next to one of the airstrips, called the Waters Cemetery. And there's the state hospital cemetery up on North Loop where about 500 anonymous individuals are buried in addition to the named plots. Or Edward Abbey, who is buried somewhere out in the Cabeza Prieta Desert rolled up in a blue sleeping bag.
I have visited graveyards and enjoyed my visits, particularly to the kind of backwoods Texas cemetery at the end of a long road where an errant cow keeps the stones company, but I generally don't hang around too long. Time enough for that!
UNSTUCK: I like that you’re interested in the forgotten graveyards. A poet once told me that in the old graveyards, where the stones are falling over, you could find at their base etchings of letters; I suppose this was how stone chiselers practiced their alphabet before setting letters to the stone. I like that there’s all this evidence of the human hand in the graves of old; their fastidiousness moves me. I suppose this has all been replaced by laser technology and photorealistic images of our deceased: somehow not as captivating to me.
AMELIA GRAY: I can’t imagine they’re as captivating to anyone. Maybe their purpose is that they’re less captivating, less romantic, than the hand-worked stone. It makes death a little more distant when it’s professionally etched. Me, I want a stoneworker in a cage over my plot creating artifacts until his own death, at which point a second cage is placed above his and a new stoneworker interred.
UNSTUCK: Our relationship to graveyards has changed since the Victorian era, when there were picnics and leisurely Sunday strolls on the grounds amidst the tombstones and crypts. I wonder why.
AMELIA GRAY: Why, I can't say. Surely we'll move back to graveyard strolls when the parks get bought up and bulldozed. The real shame is that a lot of modern graveyards are boring, sanitized places with flat stones that can be easily mowed over. I'm from Tucson, which has a pretty big Dia de los Muertos crew, and so everyone decorates the tombstones of their loved ones and hangs out and has a meal.
UNSTUCK: I was thinking that perhaps architecture has something to do with how we treat a space. Perhaps a few picnic benches and a walking path would do a lot for a cemetery.
AMELIA GRAY: I think you’ve got a future in cemetery design if this whole interview thing doesn’t work out.
UNSTUCK: Speaking of architecture, the architect Adolph Loos has this saying that I guess is quite famous in the architecture community: “Only a very small part of architecture belongs to art: the tomb and the monument. Everything else that fulfils a function is to be excluded from the domain of art.” I’m curious about the idea of tombs and monuments not necessarily fulfilling a function but doing something else, something more so in the realm of art. What are your thoughts?
AMELIA GRAY: That’s a cool quote. I wonder why a functional building can’t serve as a monument as well, though. I’m thinking of the New York Stock Exchange building, or the White House. I do like the idea that perhaps there are different purposes and levels to art, that a “pure” art moves away from practical function. I once had a graffiti artist make the argument to me that graffiti is the only pure form of art because it can’t be bought or sold; once the piece is covered by a protective sheet or pulled off the wall and put in a gallery, it is no longer a piece of art.
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Janalyn Guo is an Assistant Editor at Unstuck. She received her MFA in fiction from Brown University and lives in Austin, where she is at work on a novel. Her fiction can be found at Tarpaulin Sky, the New Yinzer, and Digital Hamper.