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An Interview with Ashley Marie Farmer

Rebecca Holcomb

Black-and-white photo of the author's face in profile
Photo by Ryan Ridge


Ashley Marie Farmer is the author of a chapbook and three books, including the poetry collection The Women (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016). Her essays, poems, and stories can be found in Gay Magazine, TriQuarterly, The Progressive, Flaunt, Nerve, Gigantic, Buzzfeed, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. Ashley has received a 2019 Best American Essays Notable Essay distinction, Ninth Letter's 2018 Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction, the Los Angeles Review’s 2017 Short Fiction Award, and fellowships from Syracuse University and the Baltic Writing Residency.

In Dear Damage, Ashley Marie Farmer explores the pain and trauma she experienced surrounding the tragedy that the New York Times describes like so: “In 2014, two weeks after Farmer’s grandmother Frances falls in their Nevada home and is hospitalized with a broken neck, Farmer’s grandfather Bill—‘the steady one’ of the couple—shoots and kills his wife to end her suffering, before attempting, unsuccessfully, to turn the barrel on himself. It is a story the author does not tell often, but her ‘disorienting grief’ in the years since has become the plot and propulsive force of the poet’s first work of nonfiction.” Dear Damage delves into an exploration of beginnings and endings, lightness and darkness, as well as the damaging policies that plague us as a country, and more. The book is ingeniously crafted using multiple forms—from legal documents to internet comments—all of which seamlessly refresh the memoir genre. In this interview, Farmer and I talk about introspection, precarity, California, and David Berman.

-Rebecca Holcomb

Dear Damage is recently published by Sarabande Books.


Rebecca Holcomb: In Dear Damage, you immediately inform the reader about the tragedy it explores: your grandfather’s mercy killing of your grandmother. Upon reading the text, I found myself moved by your prose, and how it directly explores your grandparents’ life together: their six-decade love story set in California. But the parts that stood out the most to me were the moments where you meander, and question damage done—the light and the dark—both of which are bigger than this isolated incident. Can you talk about your “quiet study of pain” when writing Dear Damage, your process, and how your expertise in both fiction and poetry translated to the creation of this nonfiction work?

Ashley Marie Farmer: Thank you for these kind words. The “quiet study of pain” began when I wrote the first essay in the book, “Mercy,” which was published in Roxane Gay’s Gay Magazine. I mention this because each issue of her magazine was thematic and, when the editors put out a call for pieces about a pain-themed issue, I sat down and drafted it with them in mind. Having a self-imposed deadline and a very fingers-crossed hope that it could maybe find a home (if not there, then possibly somewhere else someday!) motivated me to plunge into the larger project. I wrote and revised that essay obsessively, and once it was finished and submitted, I had momentum to keep going onto the next piece.

My experience in writing fiction and poetry shows up, I think, in the variety of forms I incorporate: short passages, lists, flash pieces, public comments, and legal documents. There are also transcripts from interviews with my grandparents. I’d actually sat in their living room just two weeks before the accident at the center of the book and asked them questions because I knew I wanted to write about their lives. I also think that the poet in me enjoyed the playfulness of experimentation and assemblage (because, even though it’s dark subject matter, there had to be some joy in the process of writing this work), while my fiction brain tried to stay pragmatic about what would make for a clear arc and compelling narrative.

RH: Dear Damage, to me, reads like a journey. It begins with an examination of the very public tragedy you and your family experienced, but then expands into a larger conversation about art, cultural issues, places, love, family, and your professional endeavors. I've never been fond of labels, which leads me to ask if the precarity of our modern condition—the way we are all susceptible to damaging policies and inevitable tragedy—informed this work more than anything else.

...I figured, well, if I write this personal family story, it might resonate with others. Maybe it can speak to some of our shared experiences. I tried to have a little faith that it could.

AMF: Yes, I don’t think I could phrase it any better than you just did! I had the awareness that my family’s story was unusual and highly specific—the nature of my grandmother’s accident, the public shooting, the legal case—but I also felt like aspects of it simply reflected common realities in our country at the moment. We’re all subject to troubling systems, to some extent or another: gun violence, unaffordable healthcare, the difficulties of making ends meet, inequities in many forms. There are scholars much better equipped to tackle these topics from intellectual or objective points of view—very smart people who can parse our current condition in ways I can’t—but I figured, well, if I write this personal family story, it might resonate with others. Maybe it can speak to some of our shared experiences. I tried to have a little faith that it could.

RH: I loved section two of the book, and in particular “American Dream Job,” where you discuss your experience with adjunct teaching. You write, “If adjunct teaching creates damage, it’s a soft harm that’s often imperceptible.” Can you provide further insight into the “soft harm” you refer to? This essay hits in all the right places for those of us wanting to go into academia, leavin