The Science of Inspiration: An Interview with Aubrey Hirsch

by Caroline Horwitz

Aubrey Hirsch taught in Chatham’s MFA program before moving to Colorado Springs for the Daehler Fellowship from Colorado College. She has published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in several literary journals. Two of her nonfiction essays we discussed are “Speaking From the Throat,on her experience receiving radioactive treatment for Graves’ disease, and “Five for New Orleans,on five visits she made to the city.

The Fourth River: Your essay “Speaking from the Throat” taught me a great deal about Graves’ disease. Did you have to do much outside research on the subject or did you learn all about it from the experience?

Aubrey Hirsch: I mostly learned from the experience itself. There were some things I had to double-check through research, like the dosage of the radiation I took. But I read a lot about Graves’ disease before I was treated for it. After I had the blood test that showed my thyroid levels were too high, I went home and did a Google search and Graves’ came up. I learned that it’s the best case for high thyroid levels. Other medical conditions that cause them are cancer or a tumor on the pituitary gland, so I was actually hoping it was Graves’. I thought I’d be excited when I was diagnosed with it, since it was the least serious and most treatable condition, but I wasn’t. It was still overwhelming.

FR: I can imagine. How has having it affected your writing? Toward the end of the essay, you state that “this process has taught me that I need to speak up more, ask for help, allow myself to be vulnerable.” Have you continued to speak up more?

AH: I wouldn’t say it’s affected my writing very much. It definitely interfered with it when I was sick. All of a sudden, I had to make a ton of medical decisions at once, like deciding whether I wanted the surgery or the radiation treatment. I was working toward my MFA at the time and didn’t get much writing done.

I’ve always been an outspoken person, but I think there was something about the power dynamic of the doctor’s office that intimidated me. I didn’t want to be seen as an annoying patient and then receive worse care as a result. But after the experience, I can officially say that I am now the most obnoxious, high-maintenance patient.

FR: That’s good. It’s a small price to pay for finding any problems that are potentially there. I also liked your personal essay “Five for New Orleans.” It really shows how much character the city has. I wondered, what made you decide to reverse the order of events?

AH: A few reasons. First, whenever people hear New Orleans mentioned nowadays, they automatically think of Hurricane Katrina. I wanted to give readers the aftermath of Katrina in the beginning of the story rather than have them anticipate it until the end. Also, I wanted to end on an optimistic note. The confusing part of that, of course, it that the audience already knows how it all ends from reading the last event first, but I wanted to convey the optimism of New Orleans itself. The people there know another storm will hit at some point, but they still have hope and joy.

FR: Was it difficult to recount the experience of being robbed and held at gunpoint? How do you usually proceed when writing about times of intense emotion?

AH: It was shockingly easy to write about the robbery, I think, because writing nonfiction requires you to disconnect from the memory and write yourself as a character. However, I once did a reading of this piece and had to stop when I got to the part about the robbery—I suddenly couldn’t breathe. I think that kind of trauma always stays with you in some way, but it helps that something good came of it through this essay.

When writing about intense emotion, I try to remind myself that the reader is coming to the scene with nothing, whereas I already know everything about the experience. I take my time and choose the words carefully.

FR: I know you’re very interested in science, and it comes out in much of your writing. Did you ever consider a science career, or did you always want to be a writer?

AH: I didn’t initially plan to be a writer; my major was chemistry when I started college.   I probably would have wanted to be a writer sooner if I’d known it was a real option, but I think English classes in school tend to give the impression that literature ended with Hemingway. I figured I was too late to be a writer.

I’m especially interested in theoretical particle physics. I can’t do the math that goes along with it, but I find it absolutely mind-boggling. It’s better than any fiction I could create.

FR: You write a lot in both the fiction and nonfiction genres. What’s it like writing so much of both? Do you have a favorite between the two?

AH: Fiction and nonfiction are so similar in certain ways and so different in others. I employ some of the same writing techniques for them but both genres have their own challenges. For nonfiction, personal essays can be difficult to contain. Since I have so much access to my own life, I tend to make my essays experimental.

Nonfiction has a special weight to it because of its truth; even the best-written fiction doesn’t have that. But ultimately my heart is in fiction because it’s more freeing. I have the ability to create a whole new world in service of the story.

FR: How does your research process differ for the two genres?

AH: Most of my nonfiction is personal, so just about everything I do is research, whether it’s horseback riding or going to a bar with friends. Sometimes I have to verify certain facts in order to frame the information. For example, I had to look up the Latin names of some flowers for a recent piece.

I heavily research my fiction compared to the nonfiction. It’s a very casual process since fact in fiction doesn’t have to be airtight. But the research is necessary in order to add detail and build the setting. I’d say about ninety-five percent of my research doesn’t make it into the story, but it all influences the story in an unconscious way.

FR: Where do you look for inspiration when writing?

AH: I don’t know that you can “look” anywhere for inspiration—but it would be great if some inspiration fountain or source existed. I tend to find inspiration in reality. Bits of history, science or news items give me ideas for both fiction and nonfiction. I also find it inspiring to be part of a community of writers. I love reading and talking about writing with other people.

FR: What are you currently working on?

AH: I always work on a few projects at once, usually some short fiction and essays. I’m also working on a series of flash fiction pieces about real and historical figures that I call fictional unauthorized biographies, and I’m writing a novel.

FR: Can you share what the novel is about, or is it too soon to discuss?

AH: It’s too soon. I don’t want to create a lot of hype before I know exactly where it’s going. You never know if something will take a different shape from what you imagined. But the fellowship has been a great opportunity to work on a big project like this.

Caroline Horwitz is a graduate of Chatham University’s creative writing program. She lives in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Cover photo is from American Short Fiction’s blog.

Note: since this interview was conducted, Aubrey wrote and published a story collection, Why We Never Talk About Sugar, which is forthcoming from Braddock Avenue Books.  We asked her a few questions about the process.

The Fourth River: Now that you’ve gone through the process, is there anything you wished you’d known about putting together a story collection?

Aubrey Hirsch: I guess I wish that I had done it sooner. There’s a lot of gloomy talk surrounding the place (or lack thereof) for short story collections in the market. I think I wasted a fair amount of time thinking that I’d never find a publisher for a short story collection. Meanwhile, there are lots of folks out there who love stories and aren’t afraid to take chances on collections they think are worth printing. If there’s any advice I would impart, it would be to encourage people to go for it!

FR: Which story was the hardest to write, and why?

AH: Each of the stories in the book presented their own challenges  “Leaving Seoul,” “Paradise Hardware,” “The Disappearance of Maliseet Lake,” and “Certainty” all have completely different endings than their first (and sometimes second, third and fourth) drafts. I guess if I had to give a top prize for the story I struggled with the most, it would go to “Paradise Hardware.” Finding the right balance between the scenes at the hardware store and the scenes between Clarke and his wife took a lot of patience and a lot of rewriting. Chris Heavener at Annalemma had a hand in making that story what is.

FR: Which story was the most rewarding, and why?

AH: “Certainty” was absolutely the most rewarding story for me. Most of my stories are about relationships that are broken in some fundamental way, but “Certainty” is very much a love story. When I sent it to Roxane Gay at PANK, she remarked that she thought the story was very romantic. That in itself felt like a win for me! I was also really honored to have this chosen as the runner-up for last year’s Micro Award. It makes me feel like the piece has connected with people, and that’s always what I’m trying to do.