Garrett Ashley counts mold and decomposition among his sources of writing inspiration. This is reflected in his unsettling story “Skin” [in our March/April issue on sale now]. Below, Garrett discusses his literary influences, “Skin”‘s origins, and its transformation into a longer manuscript.
Asimov’s Editor: How did “Skin” germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?
GA: Normally, when I get the spark to write something, I’m able to do it quickly, but I’m currently teaching classes and finishing a PhD, so I’ll take any time I can get these days.
As for inspiration, I love working with prompts. Give me a weird prompt, and I can at the very least get words on paper—good or bad. “Skin” began with a prompt. I wish I could remember what it was exactly: something about a stranger on a bus. There’s a scene on a bus roughly midway through “Skin” that I had so much fun writing I decided to do more with it. That means I had to write in both directions from the original material I’d started with. This sort of thing is painful to me, so it took me a few months to get the story right.
AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
GA: I think the characters in this story and many of the stories I write think as I would think, do as I’d do—maybe if I were a lot braver. I do try to push away from making my characters look/feel too much like myself, in any case. It gets boring writing about myself all the time.
AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
GA: I’m really bad at titles. I remember hearing Ray Bradbury speak about planning his stories—he liked to start with titles. He’d make a list of them and create stories around his titles. I wish I could do that. This story is about synthetic “skin,” so I titled it that way because I had no idea what else to call it.
AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?
GA: My favorite weird writer to ever blow my mind is Tatyana Tolstaya. I wish I had written The Slynx. Anyone who is able to inject weirdness into their work not just for the sake of weirdness, but to have it move the story the way Tolstaya does, is super inspiring. I’m also really into Romana Ausubel, although I haven’t been able to read her new collection of stories yet. Aside from reading inspirations, I love dioramas, models, maps, food, plants, mold, decomposition.
It took me a long time to realize that characterization doesn’t belong just to people.
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing?
GA: Animals, our relationship with the natural world, etc. To add to my list of inspirations, Sharona Muir’s Invisible Beasts really changed the way I wanted to incorporate non-humanity into my writing. It took me a long time to realize that characterization doesn’t belong just to people.
AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?
GA: I have a shelf with a dozen or so books that I’ll turn to for writing energy. Maybe I’ll pick up random books and read all the first sentences and get inspiration that way. I think my problem, too, is that slow days are usually rooted in the sentence level.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
GA: In addition to finishing my dissertation (hopefully it’ll be defended by the time this comes out), I’m turning “Skin” into a longer manuscript. To be honest, having this piece taken by Asimov’s was incredibly validating to me—I want to explore more of the world these characters inhabit, and I’ve always hated the feeling of being done with something once it’s gone through the submissions process. I’ve been able to stick with this manuscript the longest of all the work I’ve started, and I should be done with it by the summer. I wrote a scene recently featuring a colony of mold under a house: the mold is studying a woman living there, preparing to become human itself. This is some of the most fun writing I’ve ever done, and hopefully it’ll work for whomever I can trick into reading it first.
AE: What are you reading right now? What do you want to read?
GA: Journals, mostly, when I’m not doing school-related reading. Recent fun reading includes Anne Carson’s Nox and Micah Hicks’s Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones, which is an incredible book. In addition to my writer’s block shelf, I have a “to read” shelf, which includes Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station, Famous Men Who Never Lived by K. Chess, and Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic.
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
GA: There are a couple things I wish I would have been told at an early stage: One, don’t get too hung up on subgenre, literary vs. speculative, etc. Write what you want to write, and if you have a reader or two that thinks it might be categorized as science fiction, or fantasy, or whatever, then you can try submitting it as such. I’ve never had much success with starting in on a project with a particular subgenre in mind.
And two, break the ice on submissions early, and get your first rejection out of the way. Don’t keep working on something until it’s dead and you’re out of energy and love. I know a few people who’ve done that.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
GA: I can be found on Twitter @GAAshley1. I’m also building a website at https://garrettashley0.wixsite.com/writer.