Ally Findley is a writer and editor from Tallahassee, Florida, currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction at Washington University in St. Louis. Her work has appeared in Lit Hub, the Harvard Review, and the Adroit Journal.
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Bailey Bujnosek: How did you discover The Adroit Journal? And what made you decide to join the team?
Ally Findley: I found Adroit as a teenager, I think. I can’t remember exactly when Adroit was founded, but I’m the same year in school as [Adroit Founder & Editor-in-Chief] Peter [LaBerge]. I feel like the journal was part of my really early connection to poetry, and to a lot of contemporary writing, as a young person. In school you’re taught the literary canon, but I think that Adroit is one of the first places where I really started to read writers that are writing and publishing now. I took on my role as Content Editor in November of last year, after having been laid off from my job in publishing. For me, it was a way of continuing to engage with literary work, editorial work—because my background is in editorial and copyediting. I had also previously written a couple of reviews of poetry books, freelance, for Adroit.
BB: As Content Editor, what are your general tasks and responsibilities?
AF: Generally speaking, I’m primarily doing copyediting, but I will say that [Adroit Director of Content] David Roderick is open to more substantive content and input from anyone on the staff. He’s just a very approachable, open person, and he’s thoughtful about soliciting feedback from everybody he’s working with. If I do have concerns about content, or suggestions, or questions about creative direction, we’ve been in conversation about that. But primarily, my day-to-day stuff is mostly copyediting of reviews and interviews — Chicago style, going through all your commas and periods and seeing everything in the right place. That’s my job, and my background before coming to Adroit as well.
BB: You mentioned earlier that you’ve done some book reviews for Adroit, and I see you’ve reviewed for other publications, such as the Harvard Review, as well. I have a few questions for you about book reviewing, starting with: how do you find and decide on the books that you’re going to review?
AF: With the ones for Adroit, Adroit does regularly publish calls for interviews and reviews. There are lists of titles that are upcoming, new, and exciting to Adroit, and in some cases by authors that have some connection to Adroit. Basically, what I did was I went through that list and was like, what do I want to read? Or, who might I want to talk to? And I picked titles based on that. I did a review on Ghassan Zaqtan’s The Silence That Remains, which I believe was a Copper Canyon Press book, and then Hieu Minh Nguyen’s Not Here, which is a Coffee House Press book — both of which I would heartily recommend. Beautiful collections of poetry. But honestly, it was mostly just personal interest combined with titles that were upcoming, exciting, and of interest to those various journals.
BB: And what is your process for writing a review? Do you find yourself rereading a few times, or more making notes as you go?
AF: I’m definitely a very pencil-in-hand kind of reader and reviewer, so very much as I’m reading, I’m underlining quotes to come back to, or trying to track themes I’m identifying — things that seem to be a preoccupation of the writer, things that I’m just tagging as things that I haven’t seen before, or things that seem to be really characteristic of what this writer is trying to do, either in their larger body of work or in that particular collection. I do reread, but it’s usually one initial deep read, annotating, and then looking back over my notes and trying to piece together something coherent based on that, or on any patterns that have emerged as I’m thinking about the book.
BB: Switching gears a bit, you just started an MFA at Washington University in St. Louis. I want to know, is it a creative writing MFA? Do you have a specialization? Just more about what you’re doing.
AF: What am I doing? Great question. I’m starting my MFA in Creative Writing, in fiction writing specifically, at Wash U. I’m actually up for workshop next week, so I’m working on a short story right now. Kind of biting my nails. But primarily, I’m working on short stories. Basically, it’s a two-year program, very workshop-based. The first year is classes and workshops, and then you start teaching in the second year. Ideally, at the end of these two years, I’ll generate a thesis—either a collection of short stories or a novel manuscript. TBD on what will be forthcoming from me in that respect, but I’m excited to finally have a chance — with a certain degree of financial and institutional and academic security — to explore my own fiction writing in a way that’s really difficult in the world, when you’re trying to survive and feed yourself.
BB: Yeah. That sounds awesome. When did you first start writing? Who were your earliest influences, inspirations — or if there was a class, a teacher, a person in your life that drew you to writing? What was the initial spark?
AF: I’ve been writing, really, since — for a long time, in very informal pockets of my life. Not seriously until college. I actually primarily wrote poetry until relatively recently. I did my undergrad at Cornell, and some of my mentors there were Alice Fulton and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon. But also, I was really starved for creativity and mentorship when I started college, so I took every possible poetry workshop, and every possible fiction workshop, too. I studied with some incredible fiction writers — including the wonderful Helena María Viramontes.
BB: Would you say that there are any recurring themes, styles, characters, anything like that that you find in your work often? Sort of like the thing that makes your pieces ‘yours’?
AF: I think I know what you mean. One of the things that’s so exciting to me about starting this [MFA] program is that I have the chance to really figure out what that is. I have the time to think about, “What is actually the body of work that I want to generate, and that I believe I am well-suited to put into the world — that other people maybe can’t?” The one thing that’s uniquely my work, I guess. One thing that I know that I am not is a very plot-driven writer. I think I’m much more character-centered and place-centered as a writer. I’m originally from Tallahassee, Florida, and so a lot of my work is preoccupied with that place. A lot of family-dynamics-centered writing, as well. Family dynamics are fascinating to me, and that comes up a lot, inevitably, in my work — whether or not I’m even trying to. There are a lot of things, as a writer, that I feel like you only realize you’re fixated on when they keep accidentally appearing in everything you write. There are a lot of things like that for me. Like, we’re in Florida again? Okay, fine.
BB: For sure. Do you find that your work as an editor, both at Adroit and when you were working at a publishing house, changed your thoughts about writing in any way?
AF: I think that — hmm. It’s interesting. It’s so much easier to edit other people’s work than your own, because you’re looking at it in a very different way. I do think in some ways it’s made my internal critic much harsher, and in another way more targeted. When I’m looking back at my own pieces, I can kind of more dispassionately be like, “That’s not serving what I’m trying to do, so I should just take that out.” Editing is a very mathematical way of viewing writing. Or that’s how I’ve always thought about it. There’s the creative side of it, but then you get very — I don’t know. A lot of my background prior to writing was in math and science, in high school, and I feel like I tap into that part of my brain when I’m editing. It’s more focused on line lengths, and finding ideal rhythms, balances of nouns and verbs with adjectives and adverbs. Carrying and sorting and rearranging. I think that part of my brain is more active when I’m writing, as a result of having thought about these things so much editorially.
BB: I saw that you’ve written some pieces for LitHub about some pretty interesting subjects — one about attempts to save the real-life pharmacy from Joyce’s Ulysses, and one about the Ph.D. student expanding the Welsh language. I wanted to know how you came across these topics, especially since they’re both focused across the pond, as it were.
AF: Yes, and very niche! For the piece that I wrote about Sweny’s pharmacy, I was actually approached by the people at Sweny’s because I had responded, or liked something, on Twitter about their efforts to try to save the pharmacy. And they were just messaging everyone that interacted with them on social media to ask if they could do something a little bit more concrete. I pitched LitHub about interviewing Sweny’s for a piece, and they really generously got back to me right away and said they would be really interested to hear more. They’re very invested in service to the literary community, and calls to action around that. Actually, one of the results of that piece is that [Sweny’s] received a recurring grant from the T.S. Eliot Estate, so there was some sort of concrete financial outcome of that piece reaching somebody!
BB: That’s great.
AF: The experience of writing that piece was really rewarding for me, as somebody who’s a big Joyce nerd. I did my thesis on James Joyce as an undergrad, so I was really obsessed with all the Joyce things, and it was so cool to chat with all of the people who volunteer in this little old pharmacy in Dublin that’s the same pharmacy a certain scene in Ulysses is based on. They still sell the same lemon soap that Joyce mentions in that chapter of Ulysses, and they do readings from Ulysses in a bunch of different languages. Now it’s all over Zoom, and they’ve done a bunch of cool events. There’s a really special sense of living literary history and community building within that space.
And then, as for the other article with Bedwyr, the Welsh academic, I think I just saw an article about him somewhere else and emailed his school email. I was like, “Hey, do you want to talk to me?” And that was another happenstance kind of thing. But LitHub is really receptive, I feel like, to people who have niche literary things they want to explore. They’re not lofty and scary and impenetrable. They’re very interested and open, I find.
BB: Switching gears again, what have you been reading lately? What books have you really been into?
AF: I recently read Actress by Anne Enright. It’s another of the Irish novels. I guess I have something of a preoccupation with those. But it’s a really fascinating book about mother-daughter relationships, and the intricacies of fame and the psychological impact of that, and the idea of the person behind the projected image. It’s really beautifully written. I actually listened to it first as an audiobook—I’ve been on a huge audiobook kick lately, I think because in the pandemic everyone’s attention span really suffered. It was a way for me to continue passively consuming literature on those days when I couldn’t really sit and look at the page. I could listen to something as I did the dishes, took a walk, whatever else. [Actress] is beautifully read by the author, too, in her lovely Irish accent. It filled the atmosphere in my head in a way that, if I had read it on the page first and not heard her voice — it wouldn’t have been as vivid somehow, for me. So I would recommend that book, and if you’re interested, maybe consider checking out the audiobook first.
BB: It sounds interesting.
AF: Also, another book that I’ve read recently is Pale Colors in a Tall Field by Carl Phillips. He’s actually faculty here [at Washington University in St. Louis], but I haven’t worked up the courage to speak to him yet. I think Carl Phillips needs no elaboration or introduction, but he’s a legend. This is his fifteenth collection maybe even more than that—of poetry. It blew me away, as I sort of expected to be blown away.
BB: If you could give new writers one piece of advice, what would that be?
AF: I guess I would just say: trust yourself. I think there’s a lot of noise and a lot of expectations placed on you as a writer. There are a lot of ideas of what a writer should be, what a good writer is, and who you should try to imitate. One of the most difficult things to figure out is how to really tap into your internal current, listen to yourself, and find out what it is you have to say. The style only you can articulate. Just listen to that, and have confidence in that, instead of trying to perform the idea of what you think writing is, or should be, or looks like from other people. That’s something I’m working on. I don’t think I’m necessarily there yet, but I think it’s something that I’ve learned is important. It also alleviates unnecessary stress, in a way. Writing is hard enough without you trying to be someone else.