Ashleigh Bryant Phillips gives a voice to the forgotten in Sleepovers

To say Ashleigh Bryant Phillips is proud of being born and raised in Woodland, North Carolina is an understatement. Her social media is @woodlandraised and her debut story collection Sleepovers is largely inspired by her upbringing in the rural town tucked away in the northeast corner of the state. 

That collection won her the C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book Prize, which comes with a prize of $10,000 and publication from Hub City Press. Sleepovers features a wide variety of voices from people often forgot about society. If you ever get the chance to speak to Phillips, you realize her voice and point of view are just as distinct as the characters she writes. 

Her passion rolls off of her accent in such a way that she doesn’t need to raise her voice or speak faster to prove a point. Throughout our interview, I often forgot I was interviewing her for Debutiful and it truly felt like I was catching up with a friend I knew since I was a teenager.

Our conversation meandered through her personal history as well as the development and publication of Sleepovers.

You grew up in a really rural town and write a lot about rural settings. It’s clear you are very proud of where you come from and even sent me an email linked to an article about how the community has rallied around a grocery store. What was growing up in Woodland like for you? Was there a loaf of reading and writing in your life?

My daddy and my momma grew up in that area and my corner of North Carolina has been considered a cultural backwater. The only time folks would come through was if they were visiting someone who lived there. Anyone who was interested [in reading and writing] got out as soon as they could and didn’t return. The culture isn’t a traditional literary base where everyone is reading. But, and I feel this is more important and more magical, the oral literary tradition is deep. 

I remember being a kid, and this was around 1st grade, where we had to read a book to the principal in order to pass the grade. My book was about a cat and I was so nervous because my reading wasn’t the best. 

I’m saying all this to tell you that I didn’t grow up with a lot of people reading books but I grew up hearing stories all of the time. Another thing that is really wonderful about living in a place where people are telling stories all of the time is that all of the stories people are telling are about your past family members or someone you know in the community. You are told the stories for a reason. My great aunt could tell me about all of her 13 or 14 brothers and sisters over the course of cooking a meal. When you’re hearing these stories, it’s about conveying important information that will hopefully stick with the listener for the rest of their lives and not about impressing the listener by using analogy or simile.  

This oral tradition is tied closely to how stories are told in church. The cadence and the music from within these stories are derived from church sermons.

When I was 13, that same great aunt gave me a diary and she told me I could write out my ideas and thoughts. I loved Harriet, the Spy and felt that my aunt was giving me permission to do the same things Harriet did with writing everything I saw down in my diary. I wrote in my diary until I graduated high school and went to college.

What always interests me about writers’ childhoods is even if they didn’t always think they wanted to publish a book, there is always a piece of their history that hinted at it.

Before I got to college, I had no idea what creative writing was and didn’t know what an MFA was. When I left for college, I thought I was going to be a history professor. I loved history and I loved it because I loved the stories people told me which were always about history. When I got to college, professors would write come see me in my office on my papers. I was a girl from the country and for the first time in my life was around people who didn’t know me for my entire life. 

I thought they were calling me in to tell me my grammar was incorrect in the papers, but they actually encouraged me to become an English major and take creative writing classes because my voice was really strong on the page. Then all of a sudden my English advisor was telling me I should pursue and MFA and I had to ask what an MFA was.

When you got to the MFA, what were you interested in then? Were there stories from then that ended up in Sleepovers?

Yeah, Sleepovers is basically all of the stories I have ever written from the time I learned what a short story was to now. “Shania” and “Sleepovers” were written in my undergrad in the first creative writing courses I took. I workedshopped those in my MFA. 

Then I started to be exposed to so much experiemental work in my MFA, so I decided that I should try a new form for every new short story I wrote. I wrote “Return to the Coondog Castle,” which has a close third point of view only show up one time.

Another thing that shifted in my MFA was that I started to write about things that were happening to me rather than having such a distance from topics. A lot of my early stories were unpacking things from my childhood.

I was so nervous because when I turned in the last story in the collection to workshop it was about what was going on in my current life and I had never written something like that before. That was the biggest shift for me: writing about the present.

What about Woodland is so special for those who have never experienced a world like that?

Honestly, when I was growing up there, I didn’t know there was another world. I didn’t know there was another world for me. I remember watching cartoons on Nickelodeon… and do you remember the Rugrats episode when they had Passover? That blew my mind. I had never heard of Jewish people before. That episode blew my mind because I knew the story of Moses like the back of my hand but they told a different version.

We have a swimming pool in town, but all of my childhood there was never a diving board. When I went to college, I was invited to parties by girls I knew and they would have a swimming pool in their backyard that had a diving board. It’s really hard to convey that kind of isolation to somebody who hasn’t experienced it. I would try to tell the girls I went to school with in Raleigh what it was like back home. I remember a girl said Woodland was kind of like The Help and I was like “What?” It’s hard to explain what my town was like mostly because of the wrong histories and stories written by people who never witnessed it or had grown up in it.

I am a big believer of only the people from the place or who have lived in the place and who are writing about it without any ulterior motives should be the people who are able to write about a place. 

It was strange to me in grad school, there were students in the fiction program who weren’t Appalachian but were turning in stories to workshop about Appalachian people. That made me feel very uncomfortable and felt even worse when the professor wasn’t really saying anything or calling people out about it. I was definitely asked by some of those folks who wanted to get a coffee to talk about their story. Even though I’m not Appalachian, they were just trying to fish for some rural authenticity.

I think for a story to be told about a place, the people who are from there need to tell it. I guess my answer to your question about what’s so special about Woodland, for me… I think because I have a foot in both worlds, it’s my responsibility to bring the two together in one way or another. It became even more important to me after Trump was elected. I knew the country was divided before, but it became more apparent. My dream when I was putting this book out in the world was that we were going to have my college professors who shop at Whole Foods and know how to cook quinoa and who voted for Obama reading the same stories as people like my momma and my cousins who never had the opportunity to go to college. 

Why did you end up back in Woodland after your MFA?

I never imagined going back. It was like a whole new world when I went to college in Raleigh. I would try to go to a different type of food every weekend. I never wanted to live back home, but I would always dream about it. It was where my family farmed and spilt their blood and tears in. But the longer I stayed in college, the further it distanced me from my family.

I moved back home though because my daddy had been diagnosed with Early-Onset Alzheimer’s and I felt like I had to be there for him. He had deteriorated so much and I needed to be there. I loved him so much and it scared the shit out of me to move back home, but I knew if I didn’t that I would regret it.

I had a tough time finding a job and for a while I was cleaning my cousin’s hunting lodge for money. All of my friends lived hours away and I couldn’t really talk to my family members about my interests. I was able to be there with my daddy and take care of him when he passed. After he passed, I had no money to get out of there. I couldn’t find a job and I was scared to death that I was going to get stuck there. I applied to the Hub City contest out of desperation because I needed money to move. I didn’t know where I was going to move, but I knew I needed money to do so.

The C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book Prize really gave you a new way out.

Sleepovers was the manuscript of my thesis in my MFA. My thesis committee told me to streamline each story and tighten the collection up. I didn’t really work on it when I was back home. When I submitted to the contest, I opened up the manuscript back up and did edits. I added in new stories that I had written since I moved home and sent it in.

Then you left Woodland and ended up in Baltimore. How did that happen?

Another wonderful thing that happened when I was back home was that Joseph Grantham and I sparked up a long distance romance and the next thing I know he was asking to come live in Woodland. I explained to him that he wasn’t going to be able to find a job, but he didn’t care. He got a job working at the local pharmacy. It was so much fun to share my world with someone who had never seen it before in that capacity.

He loved the writer Stephen Dixon and he started up a correspondence with him through letters. One day we took a train up so Joey could interview Stephen in Baltimore and enjoyed the city. When I found out I won that prize we went up to Baltimore to celebrate and found an apartment and just did it.

Now your book is coming out and the world is going to get to know you and Woodland. 

I’m glad because when I started this journey I never saw myself on the page. I couldn’t find representation in books. Then whenever I saw what books were getting published, I never thought I would have a book coming out. To have someone say they like my book means a lot to me. It means a lot to me that I am coming out on Hub City because of all they do for writers like me.

Will you continue to write about placed like Woodland?

When I moved here to Baltimore and saw people on the street and met people in the grocery store, they didn’t inspire me like people back home. That could also be because I feel like an outsider here. Even though I could shoot the shit about movies, music and art with people here and couldn’t do that with people back home, there is something about sharing that same landscape with people I grew up with. Back home, I could be in line at the grocery store and we probably have seen the same family of deer.

I hold all of those people in my memory and am going to write about them forever. I am going to write about home forever. It would feel really strange for me to write about anything outside of my experiences of home.

Please subscribe to Debutiful’s podcast, which releases once a month with an in-depth interview with one debut author.

Adam Vitcavage is the founder of Debutiful. His interviews and criticism have also appeared in Electric Literature, The Millions, Paste Magazine, and more.

Follow Ashleigh Bryant Phillips on Twitter and Instagram.

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