Writing in an Era of Unknowability—A Conversation with Holly Goddard Jones

In Holly Goddard Jones’s new story collection, Antipodes, one of the South’s most vital short story writers turns toward fabulism to grapple with the strangeness of contemporary experience—from living through a global pandemic to facing new motherhood against the backdrop of climate despair to the alienation of digital technologies and modern political discourse. I was a student of Goddard Jones’s at UNC Greensboro’s MFA program from 2018 to 2020. We caught up over several email exchanges, which have been edited for clarity and length.

Holly Goddard Jones’s previous books include The Salt Line, The Next Time You See Me, and Girl Trouble: Stories. She teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at UNC Greensboro.


Evan Fackler: Antipodes is your first story collection since 2009’s Girl Trouble. How has your approach to the short story changed since then?

Holly Goddard Jones: Girl Trouble is the book I wrote when I was in grad school in my mid-20s, and the difference between 25 and 40 is pretty stark. What was true for me at that time was that I had a lot of audacity—the audacity to make bold, earnest statements, to have unchecked ambition—but I was also hyperaware of others’ opinions, workshop aesthetics, the influence of certain mentors. As I’ve gotten older, there are losses and gains. I’ve lost some of the audacity and certainly some of the ambition, at least as it pertains to careerism, but I’ve gained a sense of autonomy. I’m more willing to write intuitively, to follow my curiosity and try things that aren’t necessarily my “thing” as a publisher has defined it or as I’ve defined it myself to try to create a space in the conversation. I’ve drifted away from feeling like I have to capitulate to Aristotelian unities. I was never good at writing tight, unified stories, but I wrote baggy stories that would do these structural feints to try to justify their bagginess. That’s not something I really even think about now outside of conversations like this one. 

EF: Midway through the title story “Antipodes” a character remarks, “we have entered an era of unknowability, of persistent strangeness … the old rules don’t apply anymore.” In the acknowledgements, you frame the stories in Antipodes as experiments with fabulism. Can you talk a bit about why you turned to fabulism for this collection?

HGJ: That specific story was my first attempt at writing a fabulist story. I think a few different factors were at play in getting me to attempt something explicitly weird in the way “Antipodes” is weird. One was that I’d spent several years at this point getting more and more fabulist and weird stories from MFA students. So I was creating a pedagogical approach to offering feedback on those stories. If a bunch of my students started submitting historical fiction to me, and I had to think a lot about historical fiction and its terms and why it works and when it doesn’t, I’d probably eventually have to try my hand at historical fiction. 

But also: Why were students submitting fabulism and not historical fiction or something else? And the quote from “Antipodes” that you offered, that’s basically it. We’re living in weird times. This is again probably solipsism, but for me, I had children and the times got quickly weirder. Having kids is one of the most common things a human can do, but living it, it’s just so far out, mind-bending. And in my first pregnancy, I had a sudden onset of mental health issues that further distorted my sense of reality. So, I was training my brain to experience and critique fabulism at the same time that my experiences of reality became unreliable and terrifying. “Antipodes,” the story, was both a vehicle for those strange sensations and a way of writing specifically about the deeply personal experience of perceiving those sensations. 

There are really only two other fabulist stories in the collection, and I wrote both of them during Covid quarantine, and they’re both set during Covid quarantine. Sometimes, I have this feeling about Covid that’s similar to the feeling I get when I realize, yet again, that I’m a mother. Just utter disbelief. You live with it and normalize it and cope with it, on one level, and then you have a pause for breath, you take a look at it from the outside, and you think: Really? How?

EF: I think there’s an incredible coherence in tone and handling across stories in the collection, so that weirder stories like “Antipodes” or “Visitation” might just as easily occur in the otherwise more superficially mundane worlds depicted in, say, “Stars” or “Swallows.” I’d be interested to hear which stories you consider fabulist versus not-fabulist.

HGJ: It’s possible we’re sorting concepts into a different set of buckets, and fabulism isn’t even the clearest term to me—it’s just the one people seem likeliest to use anymore for stories that are uncanny or surreal. But to how you’ve framed the question, I’d say that “Stars” and “Swallows” offer no in-context indication that the world will include some unreal thing the reader will have to bend their brains around. That being said, they’re in a collection that begins with a story that does, and so if you read them in order, which is certainly my hope, the opening story might prime you to expect weirdness in a way that colors how you relate to the mundane stories. I chose to lead with explicit weirdness, and so I was aware of that effect.

I guess the most basic distinctions I’d make are with the questions “Can it happen?” and “Could it happen?” There are four stories in the collection that are a no to the first question, and I think of them as fabulist: “Antipodes,” “Distancing,” and “Visitation.” “Ark” I wrote as a kind of very-near-future speculative story, and I’d say it roughly offers a yes to the “Could it happen?” question. 

EF: When I read “Stars”—and you’re right, my reading is influenced by its placement within a collection that starts with “Antipodes”—I immediately thought, structurally, that the story was doing this Fallen thing (if you remember that Denzel Washington film). An entity—this craft question about empathy—is being passed between narrative voices through touch. I liked that subtle surrealist experience.

HGJ: I haven’t seen Fallen—I guess I should check it out. And you’re right that a story can be fundamentally realistic, but any form of narrative omniscience is surreal because it suggests some other, editorializing, all-knowing presence. It’s kind of a spiritual approach, come to think of it.

But to follow up on what you said about coherence in tone—well, thanks for that, because it’s something I really, really hoped I’d achieved. When I started putting the collection together, I ended up including heavily revised versions of four older stories: “Exhaust,” “Fortress,” “Shelter,” and “Machine.” And those were all conventionally realistic, domestic stories, but they also seemed to belong in the world of the book in ways that some of my other published short stories didn’t. What they shared, and what I tried to tease out in the revisions, were these characters who were somehow out of step with their worlds, ostracized or unfit. And that feeling can be huge, like you have an unaccountable hole in your head, or it can be the feeling of being the one pregnant person in a group of people who are drinking and having a good time.   

EF: MFA students at UNCG have one-on-one tutorials with faculty in their second year. You were my thesis chair and we ended up having a lot of conversations about genre during our meetings, particularly about how genre is, if I remember these conversations correctly, a set of terms and tones a story consistently strikes. Have your thoughts around genre changed on the other side of this collection?

HGJ: Our conversations were part of my journey toward writing the fabulist stories in this book, and so even though I was approaching the discussions as a professor with some wisdom and expertise to impart, my memory is of having a measure of uncertainty and fluidity in my approach. The tutorials are good because I can have a conversation with a student and inch toward, one hopes, mutual understanding. With some of your stories, the thing that I always found both exhilarating and confounding was how you could keep revising the story’s terms, so that at one moment it seemed I was reading gleeful satire and at the next I was in a more sincerely sorrowful dystopian reality. And the question was always, is this dissonance or is it…jazz? 

With “Antipodes,” the story specifically, I’ll say that I wrote instinctively toward a juxtaposition of two elements of weirdness that the story never really bothers to resolve. There’s the hole in the narrator’s head, and the hole in the ground. As a younger writer, I might have demanded that the story offer an explanation of why these holes exist and what they have to do with one another. Fabulism gave me license to operate more impressionistically, which was very freeing and a good way for me to write about the scary liminal space between despair as mental illness and despair as a rational reaction to a broken world. 

EF: I suppose there’s a parallel universe version of “Antipodes” out there that tries to explicitly tie together these two holes, and it’s less interesting. 

I wonder if what we’re talking about here isn’t narrative surprise, though? And I’m wondering whether fabulism is less a genre than it is a signaled mode of reading that makes room for the weird and uncanny qualifying every moment of contemporary life? Maybe even lifts some of the burden of explanation? At one point in the story “Machine,” Juliette, the protagonist, explains to a student in her creative writing workshop the difference between a surprise that is earned versus unearned after the student accuses her (“no offense”) of not believing “stories should have surprises at all.” Some of the fun of this story is in the way the story itself incorporates surprise. That scene where Juliette is sent into the basement so she can be talked about behind her back is one moment that felt fabulist in its impulse, like it opens a little pocket dimension within the narrative that a more realist story might not risk. I guess I’m wondering how you approach surprise in your writing and whether or not fabulism requires thinking differently about the sorts of surprises you can trust a reader to accept?

HGJ: I wrote the original draft of “Machine” over a decade ago, at a time when I was far from any conscious fabulist impulses in my writing and was mostly grappling with what felt a little, if you’ll forgive the melodrama, like a realignment of my craft-based belief systems. I’d begun to realize that some of the principles I’d been taught about how a story is supposed to look were arbitrary and patriarchal, and I was mad at myself for having put my trust in them. So in a way, the story is an extended joke, wading through pages of exposition to talk about a character who believes too much exposition is bad, ending with a play on the deus ex machina despite her instruction to the student to avoid those. So the bit in the basement—which, I like that description of it as a “pocket dimension,” it makes me sound smart—might not seem quite realistic to you because it’s touched with satire. What’s funny about that basement moment is that the bit about the guest house and the confusion over the kitchen—a version of that happened to me. I went to a small college for three weeks to be a visiting writer, and my understanding was that I’d have access to a kitchen, but another scholar and his wife were occupying the apartment adjacent to the kitchen and made it clear that they weren’t interested in sharing. I honestly can’t remember now how I came to that understanding—how much I witnessed directly and how much I was told later on. The fiction I created around a grain of truth has replaced the reality in my memory.  

But you asked about surprise. I think I still mostly trust in the idea of earning a surprise, which means that the surprise is something that delights you while also being constructed of ingredients already present in the story. I don’t think fabulism changes that much, at least for me. I don’t see it as an “anything goes” license. 

EF: Several stories in this collection explore empathy as a possible antidote for overcoming the cynicism of our times. “Stars” is the most overt exploration of empathy here. The story is a triptych that moves from a local politician to a young mother before ending with a brief section from the perspective of the woman’s young son. I read the story as a craft exercise wherein the jaded authorial voice attempts to overcome the “failures of empathy” that mark the current moment. Can you talk a bit about that story in particular and the role empathy plays in this collection more generally?

HGJ: That story was originally titled “The Farmer Takes a Wife,” and of course “The Farmer in the Dell” appears in the story as the mother is singing it to her son and thinking of all the ways it’s problematic. And that was kind of my launching point, too. Every time I’ve sung that song to my kids, I’ve thought about how it establishes this classic hierarchy of personhood. The man’s experience contains the woman’s, the woman’s contains the child’s, and the child’s contains the animals’. That hierarchy really is baked into our view of the world.

More generally, I’ve always been interested in the intellectual challenge of empathy. Empathy is often couched as a moral act, and I think it can be, but it’s also this highly complex process that requires a person to use their imagination, to make connections and analogies. One of the reasons that I don’t find our last president very smart is that he isn’t very empathetic, and I see that as a failure of imagination as much as a failure of character. 

EF: In some ways, I think (in terms of craft) adopting a child’s perspective by a writer has often only gestured toward some basic empathic difficulties with inhabiting other perspectives (I’m thinking particularly of Oskar in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, if that’s the correct order of words for that title). So, there’s a craft history that I thought was perhaps tied up in the decision to end in that way. Or perhaps it’s a comment about innocence? 

HGJ: I wanted to try to tell a story that presents the typical hierarchy of personhood but moves toward a kind of pure empathy, the child’s empathy that he manages to project onto an inanimate object. He’s capable of a kind of seeing that the story’s adults don’t fully manage, despite their good intentions. Maybe it seems like I’m trying to make some trite statement here about the goodness of children, but I hope it’s a bit more than that. The moment in that story that most interested me was how the mother recognizes that the politician had failed to truly see her and register her complexity, and then she does the very same thing to her little boy. And yet the four-year-old’s fears of the dark are as real to him as her fears about his future are to her. 

EF: Many of these stories, including the title story, deal with climate change. Your last novel, The Salt Line, did as well. How has your awareness of climate change impacted your writing?

HGJ: I find the topic difficult to talk about and even think about, though I think about it all the time. There was a point where just the phrase would set me into a panic attack. And the peak of this was when The Salt Line was being promoted and then released, all in the months after my daughter’s birth, so I had a hard time acting as an advocate for the book. There are times when I’ve felt mired as a writer in this impossible place between wanting to think about anything but climate change but also not knowing how to write about a contemporary reality where it isn’t somehow central to the experience. That stymied me for a while. An understanding I’ve sort of settled into is that we’re living in the new normal, and if that means it’s a beautiful warm day in February, I’m going to try hard to live in that day and watch my children play and not let an uncertain future steal all the joy from my present. The mother in “Antipodes” gives herself over entirely to despair, but there’s a reason I began the book with that story instead of ending with it. 

EF: I think that’s something this collection does better than any contemporary story collection I’ve read, Holly: both recognizes and speaks the deep despair and cynicism of our times but also reaches believably and with uncommon warmth toward other affective responses. There’s this moment in the last story, “Swallows,” where Robin meets a very equanimous grocery store clerk and she assumes he’s slow in some way. As she puts it, “What could a smart person possibly have to smile about these days?” Perhaps you’ve already answered this question in the best way you can, but I wonder, because finding the strength and resolve to live in the present isn’t exactly the same as cultivating hope, is there room for hope, do you think? Or, what is the antipode of despair?

HGJ: Oh, I cling to hope tenaciously. There are obvious self-serving reasons for why I do that, and I won’t enumerate them, but here’s the one that most convinces me, and it’s partly what “Swallows” is about: I recognize that my despair is often an act of ego and solipsism. It’s me, in my comfortable life, with the leisure to sit around intellectualizing my existence, thinking I’ve outsmarted the universe by imagining every worst-case scenario. So hope, for me, is also an act of humility. And perhaps it is despair’s antipode, but I’ve heard the same thing said about curiosity, and I might like that even more. Curiosity is what makes me want to write, and it’s what drives world-saving science. It’s hope in action.  


Evan Fackler

Evan Fackler holds an MFA from UNC Greensboro, where he served as fiction editor at The Greensboro Review from 2019-2020. In 2015-16, he was Editor-in-Chief of Ox Mag. His work can be found at Entropy Magazine, Great Lakes Review, Lunch Ticket, and storySouth, where he is contributing interviews editor. Find him very sporadically on Twitter @evanchilli

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