Storytelling in Appalachian Ohio with Madeline ffitch

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Show Notes

Madeline ffitch, author of the novel Stay and Fight, discusses living and writing in Appalachian Ohio; the realities of homesteading; writing in multiple points of view; the art of writing a child’s voice for an adult audience; fiction and autobiography; writing for urban vs. rural audiences; climate activism; Appalachian anti-fascism; the politics-art connection; and why sometimes, a snake is just a snake.

Stay and Fight was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel, the L.A. Times Book Prize for Fiction, the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, and the Washington State Book Awards. It was Ohio Center for the Book’s 2023 adult selection for Great Reads from Great Places at the National Book Festival. Madeline ffitch writes and organizes in Appalachian Ohio.



Madeline ffitch (00:00):
You know what? I think people are very suspicious of fiction right now. It's kind of a creepy endeavor, and I feel like maybe we need to own that a little bit.

Laura Maylene Walter (00:10):
Welcome to Page Count, presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. This podcast celebrates authors, illustrators, librarians, booksellers, literary advocates and readers in and from the state of Ohio. Today we're joined by Madeline ffitch, author of the novel STAY AND FIGHT. STAY AND FIGHT was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel, the L.A. Times Book Prize for Fiction, the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, and the Washington State Book Awards. And now, it's Ohio's 2023 adult selection for Great Reads from Great Places at the National Book Festival. Madeline, welcome to the podcast.

Madeline ffitch (00:58):
Thank you so much for having me.

Laura Maylene Walter (01:00):
I usually start by asking my guests about their Ohio connection. In your case, I think where you live in Ohio is so strongly tied to your novel STAY AND FIGHT that I thought maybe you could start by telling us a bit about where you're from originally and how you came to Ohio, when and where in Ohio you settled, and how all of that relates to STAY AND FIGHT.

Madeline ffitch (01:22):
Yeah, sure. Thanks for that question. I grew up in Northeast Portland actually and my family on my mom's side is four generations Seattleite. So I'm a real Pacific Northwest person and I've lived in a variety of places. But when I moved to Ohio about 15 years ago, so now it's actually far and away the place I've lived the longest as an adult. I think before that I was averaging like one to two years per location. I had some friends and a partner who had gotten together to buy a piece of marginal land, 23 acres in Athens County. So in southeast Ohio, probably about 30 minutes from the West Virginia border, our West Virginia friends call it Northern West Virginia, but it is Ohio and so that's Appalachia, the foothills. Yeah. And I moved there to join this sort of project of friends where the land was what we call raw land.

Madeline ffitch (02:18):
So it had been in our neighbor's family since 1840. They're an old coal mining family and they had used that tract of land as hunting and timberland, but it had never had any buildings on it. It has this freshwater spring on it. So we were, you know, living in shacks and trailers with very little electricity and trying to dig out the spring and get water. And now 15 years later we still live there. The cabin is nicer. We have a pretty good off-grid system with solar electricity and the spring we have a solar powered water pump and a big dairy tank where we keep water and I have two children. So it's much more sustainable way to live now I think when I moved there, the way we lived was very close to the way that Helen and Karen and Lily live at the beginning of state and fight and part of the impulse for writing that part of the book kind of came out of recording some of the absurdities and travails of trying to live on that land when we were first there.

Laura Maylene Walter (03:17):
Yeah, yeah. So for any listeners who have not yet read STAY AND FIGHT, it surrounds three women, Karen and Lily, who are in a relationship together and end up having a child, Perley, and Helen, a newcomer to the area who doesn't really know much about homesteading or living off the land at that point. And they build a home together and are living off the land. I'm curious, as someone who came to Appalachia from the outside so to speak, is there anything you'd like to share about the mythology of Appalachia for people who might not be familiar with the area, any ideas they might have about the area that you learned by living there that maybe changed your perception or just anything you would like to share about Appalachian Ohio and the realities of living there?

Madeline ffitch (04:03):
I love living in Appalachian Ohio. It really suits me to live in a community like that. People are very inter-reliant. I think people are very politically various and coming from a lot of different, I guess places. I don't even know if I mean that literally, but different perspectives and identities and kind of making it work because there's a big emphasis on knowing your neighbors. To me, one of the things I like about living there is some of the larger conflicts that are playing out. I think nationally now we're able to grapple with in more of a neighborly way. So that doesn't mean that we get along better and everything's great <laugh>, but you know, you have a chance to really understand what a total pain in ass the people can be while knowing you're gonna see them the next day and the day after that.

Madeline ffitch (04:47):
Or you know, there are people who you know would always pull your car out of a ditch in a snowstorm and at the same time that you have to have some pretty hard confrontations with about other things. And I think that that's the kind of like conflict without disposability that I'm interested in generally. And I like that long-term way that you can know people and I think it's humbling for a lot of people who come from more, you know, this kind of, how would I put it? Okay, so Athens County, I think there's some statistic has like the highest per capita of like intentional community. So there was this big back-to-the-land hippie kind of migrant thing about 40, 50 years ago. And those populations mixed with like generationally Appalachian families that had lived there for a long time. And that mixing and confrontation was not always easy.

Madeline ffitch (05:34):
But I'm coming to that generation later where we know each other better. There's a lot more interconnectedness, the conflicts are more familiar. And I think that it's humbling for the sort of hippie back-to-the-land contingent to understand that some of the pretty lofty ideologies we have about unconventional families, for example, are already being played out in a really common sense way in Appalachia where it's pretty common for there to be multi-generational families living on one piece of land in different buildings. And for, you know, like my kids go to a very small country school, they go to the public school, but it's a very small school and in their classroom there's lots of kids who are in foster care. Addiction is a huge issue in our area. There are kids being raised by grandparents, there are trans kids, there are kids whose families are homeless and there are kids who are deeply connected to historically Black and Native communities that have been in Appalachia and these kind of autonomous communities for centuries.

Madeline ffitch (06:38):
So those people are all together and I think that that's an important thing for people to remember when certain, you know, certain types of progressive or leftist culture, this sort of like back to the land kind of gets a little ideological or proud of itself to remember that unconventional families and making do and sort of living outside of mainstream American culture is not something that is a specialized skill that we learn about in <laugh> progressive bookstores. Although I love progressive bookstores, you know what I mean? That this is sort of a common sense way of living that has a lot of genealogical precedent.

Laura Maylene Walter (07:15):
Well I think that ties in perfectly with STAY AND FIGHT. We have these characters living together in an unconventional family arrangement, I suppose you could say. And speaking of conflict with Helen and Karen in particular, there's a lot of conflict but in terms of sort of disusing this romantic notion of homesteading, can you talk a bit about what your characters are experiencing, what kind of challenges and frustrations they're dealing with by living out on the land in this way?

Madeline ffitch (07:43):
Sure. Well that was actually one of my great pleasures with starting the book is that at the time I was trying to use all of these rudimentary carpentry <laugh> skills, <laugh> and growing food and collecting wild food and eating roadkill and you know, all of these sort of outdoors Helen's got nearing type skills. I don't know if they ate roadkill but you know there's all of these lifestyle blogs and things about homesteading and like living the simple life and all of this stuff and when you're actually doing it, it's pretty absurd. And I felt like maybe some of us, with love and respect, some of us who are trying to enact those skills need to have a more of a sense of humor about ourselves <laugh> and admit that it can be pretty ridiculous when we're actually doing it. And it's nice to me when that critique or that sort of self-effacing perspective comes from within people who are engaging in good faith rather than, you know, from the outside.

Madeline ffitch (08:37):
So a big part of my work is to really honor and respect participation. So to try to be an honest and good faith participant in the types of communities and challenges and obstacles and inconsistencies and absurdities and even hypocrisies that my characters are a part of. I want to make sure that people know I'm right in there with everybody else and when I am kind of poking fun at things, I'm poking fun at myself first. I think that's an important thing for me. And I know that for Appalachian communities, one thing that's been really unwelcome for a lot of people is this idea that people come in from the outside and have a kind of a condescending or you know, anthropologically, like I'm on the outside looking in attitude about Appalachian life. So it's really important to me that, and I think it should be important to all fiction writers and all writers that we remember that yeah we're the weird ones. Listening too hard and observing too deeply and jotting odd bits of conversation down. And at the same time people are watching us too and listening to us too and observing us too that that goes both ways. Aand I think that that makes our works stronger and yeah, I welcome that level of participation and reciprocity in the stories that I'm telling.

Laura Maylene Walter (09:53):
Yeah, and I feel like Helen is definitely a character. It's a bit funny and sometimes how ridiculous she might be, you know, kind of insisting on taking the lead in building their house when she doesn't actually know what she's doing. That was a bit terrifying to me. And trying to create this sort of guidebook of basically how to do everything out there as if that will be the solution to making everything. Okay. So I enjoyed that. Well, I would love to ask a craft question. So the novel is told in four different points of view. So we have Karen, Lily, we have Helen, and we also get Perley who is the child. Can you talk a bit about that, how you came to the decision to include their four points of view? And there's some other important characters in the book who don't get a point of view like Rudy, but can you talk about your choice of the point of view and also how you determined when to change to someone else's point of view?

Madeline ffitch (10:42):
Yeah, that's a great question and it actually kind of touches on what we were talking about before. I've said it before and I'll say it again, a guidepost for me craft-wise is what Grace Paley said, that you write from what you know into what you don't know. So I started by closely observing the work that I was doing every day, especially the work that I was doing working for an arborist, running chainsaws and rigging his rope from the ground. And then I started with these details of being someone who had moved from the Pacific Northwest to Appalachia and then like I often do with my characters sort of pushed a little harder on all the points to make it a little, for example, I hope that I'm not quite as insufferable as Helen <laugh> but I do feel like one turn of the dial and I could be so kind of trying to make fun of that insider outsider status thing and then pretty quickly, you know, writing from there that character bumps up against characters and experiences that I know a lot less well and I felt like the story spilled out past Helen.

Madeline ffitch (11:43):
And the other thing I'll say is that fiction writers right now are under a lot of scrutiny. I think more than ever about whether or not their stories are autobiographical. Most fiction writers are getting questions all the time about whether or not their stories are autobiographical and especially women who are writing, yeah writers of color get this a lot more. There's writers of certain identities get a lot more questions about how autobiographical their work is and people are very concerned about authenticity. I think that conversation is important. I think it's a lot more complicated than people tend to make it. So for example, it's an important part of my work to sort of scramble up the idea of insider outsider status, especially in Appalachia. One reason for that is that the white supremacist project in Appalachia is to continue to make it seem like there's a pure Appalachian person, almost like it's this pure Scots-Irish untouched, this kind of um, pedestal of some type of Appalachian authenticity connected to white identity and making it seem like Appalachia is one place in the country like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.

Madeline ffitch (12:48):
Like no one ever goes in and no one ever comes out. So like a lot of Appalachian writers have talked about and also the writer Elizabeth Catte who was responding to Hillbilly Elegy, you know, they're doing a lot of work to underscore the reality that Appalachia actually is a place where people move to, I mean <laugh>, and people leave. People come and people go and I'm one of those people. And when I arrived in Appalachia, I started working in my community and I got to know my neighbors and my neighbors know that I'm not from Appalachia but they also know that I've been there a long time and I've been doing this work and I think we have an honest relationship. So I wanted to make sure that I'm representing that kind of fluidity and flexibility that exists in Appalachia, like it exists everywhere else.

Madeline ffitch (13:29):
And then also in terms of the Grace Paley, 'cause you're really talking about this as a craft question, we kind of need to question what we think we know and what we think we know about ourselves. So some of the biographical details about Helen are much closer to me than some of the other characters. On the other hand, my personality I would say is closer to Karen. So in a sense the book is autobiographical, if it's autobiographical at all, it's the way most fiction is for fiction writers where we're bringing ourselves and our questions about relationships and our experiences and our frames of reference and our figures of speech to multiple aspects of the work, not only to someone who happens to be from the same demographic background that we do. Overall the book reflects a lot of my concerns and interests, including my interests about language and my interest in the possibilities of the land and of real everyday work and action that has consequence feeding language and storytelling and dramatic tension.

Laura Maylene Walter (14:33):
Yeah, I've always found it, you know, a bit frustrating when people might ask or assume something is autobiographical, you know, I mean I think you said it really well that it might be in the way everything kind of is just a tiny bit what we're pulling from, but otherwise it's hard not to think we're fiction writers. We have imaginations like come on, we can make stuff up <laugh>.

Madeline ffitch (14:52):
You know what, I think people are very suspicious of fiction right now. It's kind of a creepy endeavor <laugh>. And I feel like maybe we need to own that a little bit. My father-in-law says, she really listens, doesn't she? <laugh> You know, people in my family, in my community, they said, I didn't really think you were jotting that down when I said that. And maybe we need to own that a little bit more. Like I am not here to tell you that if you think fiction is creepy, you're wrong. Like if you are suspicious and you'd prefer to just read something that you know is autobiographical, I'm not gonna be the one to tell you not to do it. I mean this craft is something that is reaching at some sort of more figurative or a stance or slanted version of the truth, some kind of bubbling up of true experience than just a straightforward literal rendering the way an autobiography or a documentary would be.

Laura Maylene Walter (15:37):
Yeah, absolutely. Speaking of language, when we get to Perley's point of view, I really loved his point of view. So he's the child in the book, he's about seven, and I thought you did this so well. I teach writing and I know sometimes writers have questions about writing in a child's point of view, especially if you're writing for adults, it's not middle grade or for children. And I'm wondering if you have any tips or anything you would like to share about your process of writing his point of view. How did you approach that? How did you embody his voice in particular when you wrote his sections?

Madeline ffitch (16:11):
Yeah, this kind of goes back to your previous question. I was kind of writing back and forth this revolving perspective of various cantankerous and difficult intransigent adult with not much self-awareness. And you know, my first love with fiction writing and which if people read my short fiction, it's much more obvious in there is this very at the level of language. I mean I hate using the word experimental 'cause if you're not experimenting, what even are you doing? So all work should be experimental <laugh>, but something that maybe has more in common with what we are used to from poems. You know, that tends to be the type of prose that I like, that I appreciate. So I just felt like I needed, like the pressure was building up and I needed a different way to express some of the concerns of the family and the book and the story in a more freewheeling kind of voice.

Madeline ffitch (16:58):
So that's when I brought in Perley. And as far as the child's perspective goes, I'll say I say this a lot in like Q & A's after readings that I was a seven-year-old, that part is very autobiographical. So we all have that kind of <laugh>, you know, within us. And it's interesting to me that people sort of treat that perspective as if it's like alien identity that only some of us have access to. But we actually do all have access to that part of ourselves. I think. And I was really helped in the sort of idea of writing from a child's perspective, from writers like Rebecca West, the THE FOUNTAIN OVERFLOWS is one of my favorite novels. And she just really insists that the child's perspective, I mean she says these things that I don't even necessarily agree with, but that there's no difference between children and adults.

Madeline ffitch (17:41):
And adults are always condescending to children without realizing that children have these fully formed psyches, you know, this very stubborn existence on that. And whether or not I have quibbles with some of the, you know, I wish Rebecca West was still alive so we could just talk all night. I have really appreciated the seriousness that she takes the child's perspective that for her THE FOUNTAIN OVERFLOWS is an incredible novel. And that for her it's foundational to how incredible it is that it's written at the level of the children's, the siblings, the children's perspective, and that their perspective is actually more reliable than the adults that are surrounding them. And another writer that helped me in this is the way that Philip Pullman talks about writing about children. And of course he has to do it by talking a lot of on C.S. Lewis, which is always funny 'cause I'm like, I don't know.

Madeline ffitch (18:26):
Okay, cool <laugh>. Like it's always interesting like some other writers they have like their nemesis writer that they're in this one-sided fight with or something. But he is really rejects this romanticization, is that a word of childhood? And this idea that it's an innocent state and that children don't want to grow up and they don't want to learn that the childhood is the best part of your life. And I don't know, he really stays down to earth with the child's perspective as somebody that doesn't need to be either sidelined and marginalized or pedestal and fetishized. So I've drawn a lot from those two writers' way of thinking about the child narrator. In conclusion, I would just say that I think when people make their mistake in writing child narrators is when they consider them as two separate from their adult narrators. I mean, if you think about how your self developed over time, there's a direct connection to the way that you were thinking and apprehending experience as a child and to the way that you're thinking and apprehending experience now. If you think about your memories and the ways that you were thinking about things as a kid, you felt like yourself just the way you feel like yourself now. So just remembering we're still on that continuum instead of thinking of those children as just totally separate and compartmentalized from our interior experience now.

Laura Maylene Walter (19:42):
Yeah. And sometimes it seems to come across very simplistic when people write children's points of views, you know. I don't know, there's just so much complexity in childhood and complexity that we see in Perley, too. Well, I think we need to talk about the snakes, the black snakes that are in the book and in life. So I'm not really someone who's particularly afraid of snakes or creeped out by them. I think they're fascinating creatures. If there's some kind of educational snake set up, I am game to go check it out. But in the book, black snakes kind of take over the house and are in their house. And so that was a bit <laugh>, a bit unsettling to read about. So can you talk about that? Did you have your own experience with snakes in Appalachia or did your point of view of snakes change after moving there and you know, just talk about what it was like to write them into this book. Your

Madeline ffitch (20:32):
Listeners can't see this, but I am wearing my snake earrings.

Laura Maylene Walter (20:35):
Oh, amazing. <laugh>

Madeline ffitch (20:37):
These questions are so interlinked because again, going back to this question of autobiography, I think before I knew I was even writing a novel when I first moved to Appalachian Ohio, I just started collecting these snake stories. People want to know if the novels autobiography every single snake instance in the book. It's a story, it's biographical, it's a story that I collected from a neighbor or somebody I was working for or working with or a friend. And I tried to stay very faithful to that except the part where Perley gets bit by a snake that was speculative. I've never heard of a black snake biting someone. I just know that any animal if you roll over onto it or get it into a corner is gonna bite you probably. So I invented that. But the snakes in the silverware drawers, the snakes in the linen closet, somebody abandoning their house and building a new one 'cause the snakes had taken it over, the snakes sleeping in a bed with somebody, people just really cohabitating with the snakes.

Madeline ffitch (21:29):
Those are all things that I heard directly from the people who'd experienced them. So one of the ways I like to write just from a craft perspective is starting from either pieces of conversation, images or events that I don't understand, but that I can't really argue with. Right. So the snakes and all of the image and instance that the snakes presented to me, they were not illustrative of a metaphor, they were not illustrative of a point I wanted to make. They were very difficult for me to understand and comprehend how anybody could sleep in bed with a snake and just try to kind of get used to it. Giving your house to the snake and building a new house <laugh>. And then even people saying, well my kids know that a snake lives in the silverware drawer. So I tell them, when you go get the napkins, just remember the snakes on the left hand side.

Madeline ffitch (22:17):
Those things were, oh my gosh, very hard for me to understand. Much like it was really hard for me to understand when this seemingly misogynist, homophobic person I worked for also seemed to be best friends with two lesbians who lived on a women's separatist land project <laugh>. But I had to make those things make sense. So it's having a little bit of humility before the work and entering fiction work and storytelling as a process of participating in mystery and ongoing mystery as opposed to considering image and event as something that we pull in to serve our pre-existing needs and ideas. And that what's interesting for me about the snake thing is that when I read from STAY AND FIGHT outside of Appalachia, people are pretty sure that the snakes are a metaphor. Some pretty big reviews of STAY AND FIGHT and big publications were very sure they knew what the metaphor of the snake was.

Madeline ffitch (23:08):
And you know, I don't begrudge it. Snakes are like the original Judeo-Christian Western metaphor. And even in many other global traditions, snakes have different significance. But when I read from STAY AND FIGHT in Appalachia and even around more rural audiences definitely near me, people just start sharing snake stories. People understand and are pretty sure that sometimes a snake is just a snake. So it's not important for me as the writer to have control over whether or not it's a real snake or it's a metaphor for something. But it is important to me when it comes to the question of metaphor as a craft question, that if the metaphor is going to work, it needs to have its own integrity and sense of possibility as itself before it's conscripted into service as a metaphor. And I hope that I've done that with the snakes.

Laura Maylene Walter (23:55):
Sometimes the snake is just a snake. I love that. Well you mentioned gathering these snake stories from your neighbors and from people in the area and just your connection with the community, which is so important. Is there anything else you'd like to share about ways you did reach out or connect with the community, either for research or otherwise? Or would you like to talk about any responsibility you feel to the region when you set your fiction in Appalachian Ohio?

Madeline ffitch (24:22):
Yeah, that's a great question. I think, you know, we all know that we can't write by committee and that if you're really writing something that is true for you, that not everyone's gonna like it. So I don't want to write something that's kind of like boiled over in that way. And at the same time, I want to be available to my community and I want to write something where I can, you know, hold my head up around people who would see themselves in the work. I mean, I guess the counter example to that is that I noticed when I was trying to sell the book that publishers in New York City, for example, you know, I had one editor say, and they meant it in a complimentary way: "I have never met a single person like any of the characters in your novel." That was very exciting to urban industry people.

Madeline ffitch (25:05):
And it has been exciting to, yeah, more metropolitan readers or readers from outside Appalachia. And I think that as craftspeople and artists, there's kind of a crossroads moment there. Do we choose to kind of make the convenient choice to cater to people who are never gonna say that we're full of shit, are never gonna correct us, or kind of know the bigger picture <laugh>. There's something pretty convenient in that. And that offer is always there. I could just decide to be, sometimes I'm the only Appalachian writer person who lives in Appalachia that people know when I'm on book tour, it's an ethical moment to say, well what's gonna deepen my arts practice? What's gonna make me actually be doing the honest work that I want to be doing? I have gratitude that people outside the region connect to the work. I think the questions are much more broad and deep than niche.

Madeline ffitch (25:53):
And also it's important to me that I am not afraid of the feedback and relationships with people around where I live or people who are closer to the material that the work covers. So one thing that I did was I shared drafts of the work with people who I thought would see themselves in it so that they could give me feedback. And also so that they would know ahead of time that someone wouldn't say, oh, if something got published, it seems like maybe it's about you <laugh>. You know, I mean, it's highly fictionalized, so that's not really about any one person, but I know that there are people who would see themselves in it and I would let them read drafts and then we'd have conversations afterwards. Not only did that deepen the work and kind of sometimes act as fact checking, sometimes it sent the work in really interesting directions.

Madeline ffitch (26:38):
So for example, my partner's cousin who is Anishinaabe and lives in Michigan, I interviewed about working on a pipeline crew 'cause I have never worked on a pipeline crew and I knew that she had, so I had some pretty nuts and bolts questions about what it's like to work on a pipeline crew, even just about machinery, how machinery works, what the work site looks like. But it was important to her to talk to me about being a Native woman working on a pipeline crew. And then she quit that industry and she has supported her tribal community in opposing the pipeline project that is proposed through their tribal lands. And she sort of learned the hard way, right? She said, I'd never go back to that work. So the interview really turned into her telling these kind of truth of stranger than fiction stories about the things she encountered being a Native woman, working on a pipeline crew in a male-dominated field and in a non-Native dominated field.

Madeline ffitch (27:28):
And there was no way that I could end that interview and just say, thank you. Now I know how an excavator works. It sent the novel in a specific direction. And then when I finished the draft of the chapters that came out of that interview, I shared those drafts with her and got feedback. And also I tried to put her in touch with, you know, a journalist and somebody who might be able to take on aspects of the story that I wasn't gonna be able to cover. You know, 'cause it's not really what the novel is about, it's just a small piece of the novel. So letting the process of the work open us up to deeper and unexpected relationships. Just like when we're writing line by line, we're wanting to surprise ourselves on a craft level, on the level of language. I think that the same is true of storytelling and the interview process.

Madeline ffitch (28:14):
And I guess the last thing I'll say on it is it was a real gift. I'm surrounded by people with a huge amount of varied skillset, but a lot of times we're just, I don't know, we're neighbors, we're raising kids together, we're busy, we're doing a lot of different things. And it was such a treat to call a friend and say, could I take you out to coffee? Do you want to go have a drink? I have a list of questions like, what was it like to be a public defender in the lowest income county in Ohio for 40 years? What was that like? And just let people talk about it. Or like, I know that you are, you know, have 20 years of skill with wild crafting and herbs in this region, and there's 70 native trees in the Ohio River Valley. Let's really get into it. Really. Tell me what that work is that you do. And I love seeing my friends and neighbors shine like that and just have time to just stop and really talk about the thing that they're good at and that motivates them and have that work its way into the book. That was a real honor for me. Yeah,

Laura Maylene Walter (29:05):
That's one of the things I love about being a writer, that it gives us sometimes a good reason to ask all these questions and work out our curiosity. I mean, anyone could do it anyway, I suppose, but this gives us a structure and kind of an excuse. Well, you are also a climate activist. Do you view a connection there with your fiction writing? Do you think writing fiction can be a form of activism? And whether or not, is there anything you could offer writers for ways they could go about their work more thoughtfully or in a way that might be, I don't know, have a bigger impact, I guess, on the world that we live in? But I know that's a really big question.

Madeline ffitch (29:42):
Sure. No, that's such an important question. I was actually just trying to explain to my kids this type of thing earlier today. I think the political implications of my work are clear, but my work is not didactic or does not exist as a piece of propaganda. And yet it's important to me that you could never walk away from my work imagining that I hold the values of authoritarianism, <laugh> or white supremacy or settler colonial climate destruction. So I think that, I mean, the most important thing to me is that for me, the connection is clear on this very internal level. And I've had to learn from other people that there is supposed to be a disconnect between politics and art. I know that that is a very specific sort of U.S. American middle-class way of writing. And globally, those traditions are not, you know, globally, it's way less of a question of whether politics and art should be connected.

Madeline ffitch (30:38):
But since I'm writing in this U.S. context, you know, I would just say that for me, those impulses come from the same place, which is the place of insistent imagination and the irreducible of the human experience. So I have identified as an anti-authoritarian or an anarchist as my political orientation, my whole adult life. And I don't think that labels are very important. But the reason I like to make sure to say that is because I consider this to be a non-ideological, situational, phenomenology-based stance that has to do with always being imaginatively open and imagining something much bigger than exists currently. And also really understanding that nothing is dispensed with and nothing is expendable, which is in the best fiction. It's taking everything in, right? Identity is important, material conditions are important, the truth of blood and bone, that's all important. And also the deep individuality of every single person is important.

Madeline ffitch (31:38):
Freedom is important, but responsibility is important. Conflict is important, but neat and tidy conclusions around conflict do not ring true in novels, nor do they ring true in our movement work. And at the same time, also one thing that I think people have been impatient with sort of literary fiction in the past 50 years in the U.S. Has been a sense of low stakes, has been a sense that our biggest concerns are kind of like, I don't know, middle-class American values, the modern malaise. And I love what writers are doing these days where we're honoring the individual, the tiny moments, these ongoing family and romantic relationships. And we're also talking about the displacement that is happening right now. The huge amounts of destruction, the huge high stakes fights for justice and humanity that we're all participating in in some way. To me, all of that lends itself to storytelling. And none of it lends itself to didacticism.

Laura Maylene Walter (32:32):
Sometimes I hear from writers who, and I feel this way sometimes too, that in light of what's happening with our world and with climate change and with so much going on that seems really hopeless and bleak, to feel either indulgent about writing fiction or just wondering is this like, what is the point to this in the broader scheme of things? But I think you answered that really well. But is there anything else you'd like to add along those lines for writers who might have those concerns?

Madeline ffitch (32:58):
Yeah, I would. I mean, it might not be what people want to hear, but I get pretty impatient with writers or artists saying, my art is my activism, and maybe it's because I do both. I just think that sometimes that is a defensive stance. I think we need to be a little like easier and harder on ourselves, right? I ran a theater company for years and we performed our plays for people doing border work for people doing frontline direct action work. It would not have seemed appropriate for me in that moment to compare the work I was doing to try to say, I'm doing the same thing you're doing, this is what I'm doing. It just was clear to me that I'm doing something different. And that's fine. That's okay. I think it's important for people to carve out the time and understand why arts practice is important to them without trying to equate it with some of the really high stakes direct action activism people are doing right now.

Madeline ffitch (33:48):
What we see happening with the Stop Cop City movement in Atlanta and people fighting the Mountain Valley pipeline in Appalachia, and all of these people are people who love poetry, love art, love novels. A lot of those people are writers themselves. And when we do these frontline camps and campaigns living in the woods and water protectors and land offenders are sitting around together having writing groups. So there's no question that cultural production is important in all of these movements. And I think we should ask ourselves why we feel like we need to be saying things like drinking soy milk is my activism, having an orgasm is my activism, making theater is my activism, writing is my activism, because it's okay to have to do more than one thing. You know, you don't have to justify the work that you're doing <laugh>. And I love bringing my sort of elliptical art to activist spaces where maybe they are expecting something a little more directly political from me, and then they're reading my kind of like lyrical, like, what is even the point of this weird piece of fiction <laugh>?

Madeline ffitch (34:48):
And it's not exactly what they expected, but I love that I have a lot of faith in that community to broaden the scope of things they care about. And I have a lot of faith in my arts community to broaden the scope of things they care about 'cause I see it all as being connected. And I like it when I can kind of invite other people into that. And one basic thing that I do is just do readings as fundraisers for a bail fund. You know, like find ways that the art we're making can be clearly in favor of and promoting the kind of world that we want to see in a very practical and material way where we don't feel like we have to be making comparisons that are not really important or changing the material lives of people who are in cages or being displaced by colonialism and climate change.

Laura Maylene Walter (35:32):
Well, we should start to wrap up, but we loved STAY AND FIGHT here at Ohio Center for the Book. We're so excited. It will be representing Ohio as a Great Reads selection at the National Book Festival, but is there anything you'd like to share about what you might be working on next?

Madeline ffitch (35:48):
Thank you so much for asking. I am writing, I'm working on two books right now. One is I'm kind of coming in on the end of a book of short stories, new collection, but my main project is a new novel and ooh, I shouldn't even say that. I'm feeling good about it right now. You caught me on a good day. I am like, the end is in sight.

Laura Maylene Walter (36:07):
<laugh> I know what that's like. Yeah.

Madeline ffitch (36:09):
And it's about Appalachian anti-fascism. Of course. It's actually just about human beings and dysfunctional family relationships and all the things that great novels are about, but it is rooted in, yeah, the questions of trying to fight fascism and racism in a, like, my county's 92% white, and there is this really strong, deeply rooted history of anti-fascism in Appalachia, and it's been amazing to do the research into that and kind of like find out where rural people are coming from when fighting these big issues that they're impacted by and participate in. So yeah, thank you for asking.

Laura Maylene Walter (36:42):
Well, that sounds exciting, so I can't wait to hopefully read it in the future. Madeline, thank you so much for joining us today. We were thrilled to have you.

Madeline ffitch (36:50):
Thank you so much.

Laura Maylene Walter (36:54):
Page Count is presented by the Ohio Center for the book at Cleveland Public Library. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, rate, and leave a review for Page Count wherever you get your podcast. Learn more online or find a transcript of this episode at Follow us on Twitter @cplocfb or find us on Facebook. If you'd like to get in touch, email and put "podcast" in the subject line. Finally, follow me on Twitter and Instagram @LauraMaylene. Thanks for listening and we'll be back in two weeks for another chapter of Page Count.

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