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Author Q&A: Beth Gilstrap

Beth Gilstrap is the author of I Am Barbarella: Stories (2015) from Twelve Winters Press and No Man’s Wild Laura (2016) from Hyacinth Girl Press. She thinks she’s crazy lucky to work as Fiction Editor over at Little Fiction | Big Truths. Her work has been selected as Longform.org’s Fiction Pick of the Week, nominated for storySouth’s Million Writers Award, Best of the Net, and The Pushcart Prize. Her fiction and essays have appeared in BullWhiskeyPaperThe Minnesota ReviewLiterary Orphans, and Little Patuxent Review, among others. She lives in Charlotte with her husband and enough rescue pets to make life interesting.

TBL Author Q&A Series: Beth Gilstrap

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

What first drew you to writing? What is it that makes you a writer?

An early love of books, reading, and theater. What makes me a writer is the act itself. Everything else (publishing, editing, teaching, readings, etc.) is window dressing.

When did you know you wanted to do this for a living?

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was old enough to write. I made my own books when I was very young, complete with illustrations and cardboard binding. My mom tells me I wrote a story about a mom who only cooks chicken. I have no memory of this, but I do recall writing a play in the fourth grade.

Do you think your education has ultimately helped or hurt your writing and/or your career? What have you learned outside of school that has helped you as a writer?

Aside from the debt of three degrees, my education has helped. I would not be the reader or writer I am without having gone through rigorous training in a structured environment. Not everyone needs that kind of structure and I certainly don’t think everyone needs degrees in writing, but I thrive in that kind of environment. After school, it took me some time to find my tribe, but I read every journal I could (both online and print) to get an idea of what’s out there, where I want to be situated in contemporary literature, what I value most, and eventually I published and read and found people who feel like my literary soulmates. Twitter has been integral in this process. I never would have expected that, but it’s a space I’ve invested a lot of time in since I finished school. I’ve also learned that not only do you have to write like an m-f, but you have to submit like one, too. If publishing is a goal, you can’t send three or four submissions every six months and expect to get your work out there, unless you are extremely lucky. My luck usually (not always) increases when I send ten or more at a time, every month. My goal is to have 100 submissions a year. This past year I made it to 65 with exactly two acceptances.

What is your writing style?

I’d say my work is character-driven with lean, lyrical prose.

What themes and topics entice and inspire you most?

I’m always interested in familial stories, stories of loss, redemption, existential dread, and, above all, stories of complex, difficult women.

What is writer’s block to you? What does it seem like or how does it manifest? What do you do to fight it?

I don’t believe in writer’s block per se. I think what one experiences in those moments is fear and a lack of confidence. Fear will kill motivation and inspiration quicker than anything. If I get to a point on a project when I’m stuck, I work on something else. Something shorter. Something completely different. I always have multiple stories and essays going. And on the rare occasion that I’m feeling frustrated by everything, I do what my friend Georgia Bellas calls “hunting and gathering.” I go to a museum, to a concert, on a walk or hike. I go to other art forms and to nature. They never fail me.

What do you look for in good writing? What qualities or characteristics must it have?

I like clean prose, dynamic characters, tension, momentum, and real emotion. I tend not to go for heavy exposition, backstory, and flashbacks, particularly in short fiction.

You’ve been published in some literary magazines and recently released a short story collection. Can you walk us through that process? How did you react to it all?

Nothing beats the feeling of the first publication. But you know, I’m still giddy every time I get an acceptance and on the eve of publication, I’m still terrified. I try to write without thinking of who might read it, but then the vulnerability always hits me when publication gets closer. It was basically the same with my first story collection—a mixture of joy and terror. I loved the editing process, seeing how it grew from the original manuscript, and opening that first box of books.

What do you do for a living?

I do write for a living. I just don’t make very much money at it. I am fortunate enough to have a spouse who supports me and I supplement by walking dogs and pet sitting. I also care for my mother-in-law who is ill. Eventually, I hope I’ll be able to teach creative writing at the university level. I have taught composition in the past, but the rewards versus cost of adjuncting isn’t right for me at this time.

What is your ultimate goal? Where do you see yourself in five or ten years?

I hope I’m still writing the best work I’m capable of at any given moment. I hope I have a few readers who connect with what I put into the world along the way. I’d love the chance to teach.

What advice do you have to give to people just discovering writing? Trying to get published? Trying to finish their novel/collection?

Read everything, write as much as you can, submit like a maniac, and work as a reader for a literary magazine. My time working for Fourth River, Atticus Review, and Little Fiction | Big Truths has been invaluable. It will show you what you’re up against (in terms of quality, the types of stories that are overdone, etc.) better than anything. In terms of trying to finish a longer project, I’ve found the first draft to be the hardest. If you can hunker down and finish a first draft, revisions aren’t so bad. It also helps to be a bit of a hermit.

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