In Ashleigh Bryant Phillips’ revelatory debut story collection, “Sleepovers,” characters in rural North Carolina fight through adversity while taking refuge in life’s small pleasures. They chew tobacco and fish for bass with crickets, and drink Crown and Mountain Dew from a “special shrimp cup.” There’s a little girl named for country singer Shania Twain, and another who names her dog for her favorite racecar driver, Bobby Labonte. Despite the impressions they leave, the characters defy easy description. Perhaps that’s because North Carolina native Phillips—who grew up in Woodland, near Roanoke Rapids—isn’t interested in glossing over hard truths.
“Sleepovers” was selected by novelist Lauren Groff (“Fates and Furies,” “Florida”) as the winner of the 2019 C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book Prize, awarded annually to a debut author residing in the South. The award comes with $10,000 and publication by Hub City Press, the Spartanburg, South Carolina-based imprint run in part by a pair of UNCW MFA alumnae.
Though she now lives in Baltimore, Phillips also earned her MFA from UNCW. (Full disclosure: I was one of her classmates.) And while the 23 stories in her collection largely draw from her mile-long hometown, many were dreamed up and written in Wilmington.
Of “Sleepovers,” Groff writes, “Ashleigh’s prose often holds an incantatory crispness that lulled me into forgetting that I was reading … I see in this collection a steely writer, one deeply moved by her place and her people, but also fully committed to the truth no matter how dark or difficult or complicated it may be.”
encore spoke with Phillips by phone earlier this month.
encore (e): I know you to be a great reader, but I also know that a big part of your writing process is listening to people speak. Can you describe that process?
Ashleigh Bryant Phillips (ABP): I honestly never thought about it much until “Sleepovers” became a thing and people started asking me about voice. I grew up in the old-school tradition of passing down stories from family member to family member. Where I’m from the newspapers aren’t exactly the most funded or staffed, and they get some things wrong, so maybe that’s why the oral tradition is so strong—everyone’s keeping their own records straight. [laughs]
In order to have a story be remembered, you have to tell it in a short enough amount of time, with just the right amount of details. It has to really hit you in the gut. This is also the way preaching is. The preacher is up at the front of the room, and he’s trying as hard as he can to get you to come to Jesus because he believes with all of his heart that’s what he has to do. There’s a lot of conviction and passion in his communication, and I think that’s always present inside me as an influence.
But all you gotta do is really listen. I had the advantage of hearing stories told to me by the people it happened to, in the place where it happened. So all I had to do was listen and have a little imagination, and I could see the story unfolding right there in front of me. I guess kinda like what historical place tour guides are aiming to get their listener to do.
e: I won’t give anything away, but there are several stories in this book that start out as one thing and then very suddenly become another. I’m thinking in particular of “An Unspoken” (in which a senior citizen witnesses her young neighbor defiling his dog). How intentional are those shifts?
ABP: In that story, I wanted the reader to feel like Miss Clara. In order for that to happen, I knew it had to unfold just as it happened for her. In real life, we don’t have trigger warnings. I wanted it to feel as close to the real thing as possible; I wanted it to feel as jarring as I could.
That story started off in close third from Clara’s point of view, and then I knew that wasn’t the right way because it wasn’t just about the shocking incident. It was about something bigger. That was just an event, but that’s really not what it’s about. The bigger story is someone’s hurting somewhere, and someone’s really lonely somewhere. I had to expand the focus through an alternating point of view with Clara’s husband, Hal. To have made it just about the event would have cheapened it. That would have made it more like a story. I wanted to make it more real.
e: What, if anything, do we lose when writers from cities write about rural places?
ABP: We lose everything. In all art forms, I’m interested in the purest form of the thing; I want to know where it comes from. I don’t care for it being diluted. In other words, while I enjoy listening to “Let It Bleed” by the Rolling Stones, and it’s great, I know that if I really want to get to the root and the lifeline of that, I need to go and listen to Lead Belly.
I feel like [writing in someone else’s voice from a lower socioeconomic background or place] has been a trend, and I get why it’s happening. It’s because people want to be heard, and they feel like they have to write a book from an “interesting” place that isn’t their own, when in fact if they looked into their own life and were honest about what was happening around them, they would have good fiction. Instead of mining other cultures—which are likely more impoverished than yours—and using their experiences, and attempting to write in the way they talk and not even getting it right, you should put money toward organizations that are working to uplift those voices, so those voices can speak for themselves.
Imagine how powerful it would be if we were to equip poor rural people with the ability to get their work published with its flaws and all. I want to see misspellings and run-on sentences, I want it to be as pure and untouched by editors in New York City as possible. Because that’s reflective of our current America. How powerful would it be to see something like that?
This has a lot to do with this white savior complex. And I know that in my book there’s characters based on folks I have never been, but they’re all from the same place I’m from. I feel like it’s OK for me to tell them because I love them, and I grew up breathing the same air and walking along on the same dirt as them. But if you’ve got to sit down and do a lot of research in order to create your characters, in order to create the world they’re in because you’re confused about what it looks like—maybe you need to reassess and start writing something that’s closer to you. Because only the work that’s close to you is going to move the reader.
e: Without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
ABP: While I was writing some of these stories, I was doing a lot of housesitting, and one of the houses belonged to [Wilmington artist] Virginia Wright-Frierson. Her house is filled with these self-portraits that kind of track her whole life. So that was really amazing because I was taking [MFA] workshops, and people were giving me suggestions on my short stories, and all the while I’m living in this amazing house, surrounded by self-portraits by a woman who really was just doing them for herself. She wasn’t thinking about an audience.
Virginia Wright-Frierson also had this bottle house in her backyard. I told her how much I loved it and she told me she’d created the Minnie Evans bottle chapel at Airlie Gardens, and I was like, “Who in the world is Minnie Evans?” My mind was just blown. That was my first [understanding of] what outsider art is. Here was this visual example of what I’d been rolling around in my head, art in its purest form.
Minnie Evans grew up in poverty in Pender County, NC, leaving school after the 6th grade. But she ended up becoming the gatekeeper at Airlie Gardens. One day the Lord came to her and said, “Why don’t you draw or die?” And her drawings are so original and so authentic and unlike anything else I’d ever seen. Minnie Evans believed angels told her what to draw.
It was amazing to discover Minnie Evans while in a program that was constantly like, “Oh, well, this short story is definitely a derivative of this writer,” and “You should do this because this writer did this.” It was really wonderful to see someone authentically being themselves.
Other than that, I was definitely going to Orton’s a lot, and Lula’s and The Fat Pelican. I haven’t figured out how those directly influenced the collection, but I’m sure being able to play whatever song on the jukebox I wanted at those places had something to do with something. [laughs]
e: What moves you most in a work of literature?
ABP: Authenticity. Because authenticity is going to make it powerful, and it’s going to make you remember it.
I remember reading “Lolita,” and that was the first time I realized what powerful literature could do. I thought it was magical how Nabokov could make me feel for this pedophile. I felt for him. My whole life up to that point, I had no idea it was possible to empathize with someone so different and mighty deranged.
After that I was like, “Oh my god, this is what it’s all about.” I’ve tried to do that in my work, to get people to feel for or relate to folks they never thought they would. That’s the greater gift of fiction: to build empathy and connection and understanding.
I’m not interested in work that’s just trying to be clever, and show off as many similes and metaphors as possible. I understand why we need that, and it serves a purpose, but that’s not my favorite. I want to come away feeling like I understand the world a little more, and if I have to be hurt in the process, it seems to me that’s the most effective way to get people to listen. You have to hurt ‘em in some way.
“Sleepovers” can be purchased at Pomegranate Books or directly from Hub City at hubcity.org. In lieu of funds raised at public events, Ashleigh asks that donations be made to Repairers of the Breach, a Goldsboro-based nonprofit that works to reconnect shared faith traditions with public policies rooted in the moral values of justice, fairness, and general welfare.
Debut fiction by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips
Hub City Press, 204 pgs.
$16.95 • hubcity.org