Tasha Coryell teaches English at the University of Alabama where she is also a PhD student in Rhetoric and Composition. She is working on several novels and trying to become a better citizen. Hungry People is her first collection of stories. You can find her tweeting about writing and Alabama politics under @tashaaaaaaa.
Tasha Coryell and I both attended the University of Alabama for our MFAs, and while she graduated a couple years ago, I was lucky that I “overlapped” with her for a little bit. As far as I am concerned, Tasha has always been one of the most inspiring figures around the UA campus and the MFA program specifically—I don’t think I’ve ever met someone with her work ethic, whether it be toward writing, running, or teaching. (Have you ever tried to teach a novel-writing workshop to undergrads while simultaneously training for a marathon and working toward a PhD? Tasha has, successfully. She is committed.)
And that commitment, of course, comes through in her fiction—in her craft, her style, her humor, her willingness to throw punches. Her first book, Hungry People, is a collection of biting stories about violent clowns, attic-dwelling stalkers, reality television, and sickness, among many other things. Most importantly, Hungry People is about hunger. The hunger for sustenance, yes, but also the hunger for love, for attention, for belonging, for sex, for violence. These are primal stories about primal human desires.
Chase Burke: This is your first published book (congrats! it’s great!), though I happen to know you’ve written, well, a number of books. In fact, when I think of Tasha Coryell, Writer, I think of you first and foremost as a novelist. What was it like putting out a book of short fiction as your first book, and how was the experience working with a small (but mighty!) press like Split Lip?
Tasha Coryell: Like most people, I was primarily a short story writer during undergrad and at the beginning of graduate school because that’s what was taught and required in my classes. I did write a novella at the end of high school and revised it several times over college, which foreshadowed my endless novel writing process of frantically writing and then revising until the end of time. While I was putting off writing a novel, I wrote a lot of short stories. Michael Martone runs a hypoxic workshop where he requires students to turn in a short story every single week and that was hugely productive for me. I don’t think this model works for everyone, but I’m a very fast writer and I’m not precious about when and where I can write so I ended up writing and publishing a ton during that course. I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to put together a collection and it happened somewhat naturally at the end of my MFA program.
I knew when I put the collection together that I specifically wanted to submit it to small presses. It never felt like a big or fancy press collection. I ran into Amanda Miska, who runs Split Lip Press, at AWP and she encouraged me to submit. I submitted and forgot about it, as I assumed that nothing would come of it. I’ll always remember that I heard back from Amanda on December 14th, 2017, because on December 12th, 2017, Alabama elected Doug Jones, an effort I put my entire self into, and on December 13th, I bought a house. It was a big week.
I really enjoyed working with Amanda and Split Lip Press. I was able to give a lot of input about the cover, and I knew a couple of the other Split Lip authors so I felt comfortable having them publish my book.
CB: The cover is fantastic, and I think it’s perfectly representative of the kind of, I don’t know, weirdly bittersweet mode a lot of these pieces take. This makes me wonder: when did you know that these stories in particular were a book? Did you realize, as you were gathering your finished material, that you had written a number of pieces that worked together thematically, or were you thinking conceptually from the get-go?
TC: My husband always jokes that there’s a type of story that’s like a “Tasha story” and usually that’s in relation to a weird news story. The reason for this is that a lot of the stories actually come from weird news stories, though heavily adapted. For me writing a short story is like playing a game of “what if.” It enables you to experience possibilities that never happened. Everyone (by “everyone” here, I mean TV, which I think of as a collective unconscious) is really into the idea of string theory right now. A short story is like an alternate reality where you’re in control of everyone and there are many fewer consequences if really fucked up shit happens.
That being said, I think there’s a particular tone most of these stories have. I definitely wrote other stories when I wrote these that don’t fit the collection as a whole.
CB: Do you consider yourself a satirist? I imagine that writing “weird news stories” might lend itself well to that kind of skewering of the culture. You can see that happening in “Conjoined,” for example, though there is a biting edge cutting through pretty much all of these stories.
TC: I don’t consider myself a satirist, but I think everyone else considers me a satirist, so maybe that makes me a satirist? I wrote “Conjoined” after the TLC show “Abby & Brittany,” about two conjoined twins, premiered. The thing about Abby and Brittany is that they are very average Minnesotan teenagers (now, presumably, they are very average adults), so the show itself wasn’t all that interesting. A lot of TLC shows are like this, like “All-American Muslim” about a Muslim family living in Michigan. Both shows lasted for a single season because they weren’t very interesting. I wrote “Conjoined” as the TV show that people imagined and never got, so I guess it’s a satire.
I go through periods where I watch a lot of TLC (my initials are also TLC) and I think you can see satires of their shows in multiple stories like in “Elliot and His Demonic Daughters.” That was =particularly inspired by watching hours of the Duggar family and then feeling guilty for spending hours watching the Duggar family because I think they are wholly evil.
CB: Do you see this book as a kind of thesis statement? I guess what I mean is, are the concerns in Hungry People the concerns of your writing, your body of work, generally? (Pun sort of intended, because bodies are bluntly and delightfully described throughout.)
TC: This is a really hard question. I have several different answers that are all different from one another.
My first answer is that I think they are a thesis statement of a particular time in my life. I was learning to write fiction, real fiction, that isn’t just a thinly veiled allusion to my life and so I was playing around with a lot of different characters and formats.
My second answer is that I think most things I write come back to the body. I had a high school writing teacher who always said, “Imagine what girls would write if they weren’t so concerned with their weight?” and that has always stuck with me, but in the way that I seem to incessantly write about the difficulty of having a body.
The third answer is that I don’t think anything I write is a thesis of my writing as a whole. I write in multiple genres and disciplines and I’m hoping that everything I write is successful on its own.
CB: I was struck, as I was reading Hungry People, by the bluntness of the voice and the descriptions, the almost staccato rhythm of the sentences. And the humor! I thought often of Ottessa Moshfegh and Rebecca Schiff, as well as Alissa Nutting in some of the absurd (and violent) turns. Do you think in terms of “lineage,” as in, the writers whose footsteps you are following in, or who might be considered your contemporaries? This is kind of a way of asking about inspiration, but I think there is a real distinctinction between what or who inspires your writing, and where you think your writing—your stories as objects out there in the world—belongs.
TC: My second and third grade teacher loved Roald Dahl and I read all of his books for children and later his books for adults. It was horrible to realize what a misogynist he was. Memoirs, it turns out, don’t reveal everything about a person. My husband once described my book as being like “feminist Roald Dahl,” which would be a great compliment except it came from my husband so it doesn’t count.
It’s harder to name contemporaries. I had a moment where I read Social Creatures by Tara Isabella Burton and was like, “Oh no, she’s doing everything I want to do, but better.” I also get that feeling reading anything by Alissa Nutting.
I also think that inherently I will always feel a sense of un-belonging that has existed inside of me since high school.
CB: I can see plenty of class and gender concerns in your stories, but at the same time I don’t want to say that you’ve “written a political book” if you don’t necessarily see it that way. Do you mind talking a little bit about the work you do with politics in Alabama, and how the “current political moment,” to be polite about it, informs (or maybe doesn’t inform) your writing? I’m likewise interested in your scholarly interests—you’re currently working on a PhD in Composition & Rhetoric, and you have an MFA. Do you find an intersection there between that and your more creative work?
TC: I wrote this book mostly (if not entirely) before the 2016 election, so it was written at a time when I had a lot of concerns and liked to talk about these concerns and that felt like enough. After I stopped crying about the 2016 election, I had this moment of crisis where I was like, “What the fuck am I doing with myself?” because I felt so totally useless and I don’t mean to categorize useful/useless under the capitalist description of those terms, but rather under a civic definition. This, in part, is a reason I decided to pursue a PhD in Composition & Rhetoric, in addition to becoming active with local political organizations. I saw Brittney Cooper speak a couple of years ago before her book Eloquent Rage came out and she articulated how teaching comp and writing were a means to make change, and that one talk was enough to push me to apply for a comp/rhet PhD, which I’m currently doing in addition to teaching full time.
I honestly thought I wouldn’t have a book come out for a long time because being involved with politics changed my perspective on writing. I always thought of writing as the most important thing and publishing a book was my primary goal within that most important thing. After the 2016 election, I realized that I had a long time to publish a book. That’s the nice thing about writing, it’s not like gymnastics or basketball where you career has an end date. Writing is still important to me and I still want to publish more books, but it’s also important to me that I help support progressive politics in Alabama and work to ensure that Trump doesn’t get re-elected in 2020.
CB: Your pinned tweet is one of my favorite tweets, maybe of all time. It is, I really think, a perfectly absurd photo of our perfectly absurd moment, and also, as you note in the caption, a pretty stellar “blurb” for your writing.
You’re pretty active, I would say, on Twitter, and you even thank “writer Twitter” in the acknowledgements of Hungry People. What is it about Twitter that makes it work for you as a writer? How do you (and I’m projecting a bit of myself here) not spin out into a ditch of anxiety and despair every time you log on?
TC: When I was younger I was obsessed with the Modernists, and not because I loved their writing, but because they all hung out together in this big writer clique and I wanted so desperately to be a part of a big writer clique too and it seemed like this impossible thing because I’m an introvert who just likes to do work all the time. Then I found writer Twitter and suddenly I had this big writer clique, which was incredibly affirming for me. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years working on novels and the problem with working on novels is that it’s hard to publish anything else. Writer Twitter has made me feel like a writer during that time. I also love watching people I’ve communicated with for years gain success in their writer careers. I feel some jealousy, sure, but it also makes me feel like success is possible.
All that being said, I find Twitter to be incredibly anxiety inducing and I wish I had a healthier relationship with social media as a whole.
CB: One last question: what are you reading right now, and what’s on the to-be-read shelf? Any recommendations?
TC: I saw Kiese Laymon read an excerpt from Heavy and I immediately bought a copy and I was so excited to start reading. Then I realized that I wasn’t emotionally prepared to start reading and I bought a mystery novel on my Kindle instead, which is pretty representative of how I’ve been reading for the last couple of years. I think there’s a lot of amazing non-fiction coming out right now, but I have to space it out between some easy-to-read mysteries and YA because it takes a lot of emotional energy. My book club recently read Educated and it totally destroyed me.
The fun and difficult thing about starting a PhD in a different field is that they have a completely different set of texts that everyone is reading. I feel like everyone in comp/rhet, especially in digital rhetoric, is reading Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Nobel. My giant stack of to-read books shows that I haven’t figured out how to keep up with both fields yet. I’m dreaming of a summer where I can work on novel writing in the morning and spend my afternoons reading on my porch.