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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, leaving readers more aware of what awaits them if they do accept adjunct teaching gigs. Was that your goal when writing this essay?

AMF: On one hand, I wanted to write a love letter to teaching and to the students I’d had in those sunny California days. There are still students I wonder about from a decade ago. Did they get into grad school? Are they still writing? Do they have families now? Those years were electric and buzzy and full of so much discovery for me and also a genuine love for the work I commuted to on freeways each day. The classroom is a space I’ll always feel honored to occupy when I have the chance to do so.

But on the other hand, there’s a big problem with the exploitation of contingent labor. What I mean by “soft harm” is that the damage it causes isn’t always perceptible—not to students, not to other faculty, perhaps. Definitely not to the wider world: for good reason, I know, it’s not necessarily at the top of our collective list of systems that need overhauling. But I recognized that it wasn’t sustainable for me personally and wonder if it’s maybe not sustainable for higher education as a whole—not, at least, if we want to maintain high ideals and hopes for what it can mean for our shared future. I just don’t believe that anything built on such a shaky foundation can last. And a system that takes advantage of people is very, very shaky.

RH: Leaving California for you is, “when I begin to scrap that pursuit of a life my parents and my grandparents made: something linear, nuclear. It’s also when I stop trying for academic gigs” (89). Can you talk more about the complexities your writing highlights—the tensions that arise from cultural paradoxes—the narratives we try to live by?

. . . I suppose I live with the love of those stories while also realizing their limits: they’re incomplete narratives from other eras . . .

AMF: My family’s narratives transfixed me as a kid and I think I always looked to their stories as a guide to how to be a person in this world. I’d memorized my grandparents’ tales of growing up in Los Angeles and falling in wild love with each other and then making a responsible life together. The same was true for my parents. I could picture their first Anaheim apartment, could imagine the beach nearby and the shady/hilarious characters in their complex. I knew the details of how my dad proposed the first of two times from underneath a car he was fixing and my surprised mom pretended not to hear him. I always thought my life would look a lot like theirs. But not only did I outgrow those ideas and desires myself, but the times have also obviously changed, too. Nothing is so linear to me anymore, and those cultural moments they lived in have passed. So I suppose I live with the love of those stories while also realizing their limits: they’re incomplete narratives from other eras and don’t necessarily speak to the day-to-day of my life the way I’d thought they would.

RH: You write that your husband knew David Berman, given his connection to Louisville. While Berman is in and out of these pages, a specific paragraph in the book discusses Berman’s death in 2019. You write, “I also question the notion of beginnings and endings, of straight lines or clear shots, or the idea that a person could stray off course if she tried. Life loops like waves, those circles with their own logic and timing. It’s enough to make you feel stupid. Or to wade out to your knees in belief” (66). I absolutely loved reading that paragraph. It feels very true to Berman’s poetry and music. What more can you tell me about his influence on your art and your life?

AMF: Berman’s work holds a special place for all of us who own dog-eared copies of Actual Air (his only book) or who’d put carefully chosen Silver Jews songs on mix CDs for people we loved. Berman’s work and music take me back to sweet times and friends, plus there’s also this connection that Berman has to my hometown of Louisville, KY. (Berman didn’t love it, though. He sings “You know Louisville is death”—but hey, Louisville still shows up just the same!) No one can turn a phrase like him, and I guess there’s this sensibility I relate to that’s maybe generational. I’m more than a decade or so behind writers and musicians like Berman, but they’re some of the ones I’ve looked up to. And though he’s sadly gone, his poems and lyrics will hold up across time, I think.

There’s a line in his poem “Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight” that I thought about a lot when I was writing this book. It’s about how, even if what the speaker says isn’t correct, then he hopes it’ll at least be harmless like a leaky boat in the reeds that isn’t bothering anyone. That’s how I felt about this project of mine: if it wasn’t perfect, I at least wanted it to be harmless. I guess my point is that Berman shows up in a number of ways still, a permanent impression on my heart and brain.

RH: You mention in the book, that your husband, Ryan Ridge, suggested more light throughout it. I also read in an interview that you credit the balance of light and dark topics to an editor. And reading previous work shows an inclination to dark themes or motifs. Do you think it is important for memoirs and nonfiction to assume more palatable forms? Digestible forms? Easier forms?

. . . I’ll always have greater attention toward the reader now—just an awareness of them in the periphery that hopefully results in a more thoughtfully crafted project.

AMF: I think I’m inclined toward dark themes simply because it’s a part of life I try to make sense of. I’m not sure that memoirs (to my mind, at least) need to assume more palatable forms necessarily, but I felt a responsibility to the reader I haven’t felt in other work I’ve made. As you mention, an excellent editor, Sarah Gorham, helped me recognize that there had to be a balance between brightness and darkness in the book—that the reader had to experience contrasts. There were, in fact, several other darker threads I pulled from the book because they weighed it down too much and threw things out of balance. Instead, I was encouraged to bring in more love, and more scenes from my everyday life, and I think it resulted in a book that lands a little softer than the first drafts did. I have to say that I’ll always have greater attention toward the reader now—just an awareness of them in the periphery that hopefully results in a more thoughtfully crafted project.

RH: Your grandparents are the stabilizing thread in the book: their sense of wit and humor shine throughout. But you also discuss your mother and siblings. I am curious why your father is mostly absent from these pages?

AMF: My dad isn’t a part of this book mostly because so much of it is my mother’s family’s story (and since my parents are no longer married, my dad wasn’t present for many of the moments I write about). It’s also a funny thing because, even though Dear Damage is nonfiction, there are certain fiction-like decisions I found myself making in order to keep the narrative tight and clear. Through the editing process, I had to pare down and peel away some stories that felt important to me and included a larger cast of characters (so to speak), simply because the structure I’d set up couldn’t support them or it just got confusing. Those are strange decisions to make because they’re personal, but I tried to keep in mind that some omissions were in service of a larger purpose.

RH: You write, “In our family’s slack cosmology, signs exist anywhere you look for them: billboards and radio lyrics and the crinkled magazine in the doctor’s office” (21). I loved reading that sentence and the way you draw the reader into the natural world is also impressive. I am thinking of the brackets about the ocean that head the scene breaks in the essay “Slow Circles” here. What can you say about the freedom of your upbringing, the privilege you mention, and the impact growing up in a family of artists had on your development as a writer?

AMF: Creativity and self-expression were always encouraged in my family: crayons and scrap paper, salt-and-flour sculptures, library books, making music, just getting lost outside. In high school, my parents let me paint and Sharpie my bedroom walls into oblivion—I had all kinds of poems and song lyrics scrawled from floor to ceiling. My mom was almost a kid herself in this way, creating cool ways for us to make art together, even starting businesses around it. My dad went to college when I did. He took theater classes and let me tag along to experimental plays. It never felt like creativity was something a person needed to be good at, but that there was value in it for the sake of doing it. And, although I spent many years growing up in the Bible Belt—across the street from cows and corn—we weren’t a part of the religious culture there. Instead, my parents encouraged us to explore different spiritual perspectives and traditions, to find connections between them. All of that made for a childhood that felt very open. So among the many privileges I was afforded, I think this encouragement toward exploration and imagination had the biggest impact on me.

RH: In the last essay of the book, titled “No One is Waiting,” you talk about a pandemic post online that praises an act of kindness you witnessed. An act that prompted a broad range of discourse, both good and bad. Then, again, you return to themes in the book: change is constant— “certainty is a daydream”—honing in on the idea that life in and of itself is unpredictable. You write, “Time loops. Like the public stories and comments about my grandparents’ incident—the mug shot, the DA’s verdict, other writers’ articles, random strangers’ perspectives . . . ” (171). And then, it seems you honor your grandparents in the last sentence: “It’s enough that they were here” (172). In many ways, your book loops as you say, never trying to provide a clear-cut response to the damage done, as if suggesting that so much lies under the surface of things. Would you characterize Dear Damage in this way, or what do you hope the reader takes away from this work?

. . . this book was, for me, an act of accepting what I’ll never truly understand, at least not to a depth that feels satisfying or definitive.

AMF: To this day, I can’t say how I judge this incident in my family—and it’s not for a lack of trying, not for a lack of grappling. I’ve devoted many hours to trying to understand what happened and landing on some concrete good/bad verdict. But I think a lot of us experience traumatic moments that can’t be summed up in a sentence, that are rippled and wrinkled and reverberate with questions. Most life-changing situations resist tidy conclusions. And family is similarly complicated—we’re imperfect people who love other imperfect people in a world that can often be hard. So this book was, for me, an act of accepting what I’ll never truly understand, at least not to a depth that feels satisfying or definitive. And because none of us are unscathed, I imagine there are readers who are in similar boats, who have family secrets or have experienced traumas that resist tidy conclusions, too. I just want to say that I see them and I hope they feel seen.


REBECCA HOLCOMB is an MFA candidate at Florida State University studying nonfiction and fiction and is Nonfiction Coeditor for Southeast Review. She holds an MAT from Northwestern State University and a BA in English from Louisiana State University at Alexandria.


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