Sometimes we happen upon writers who completely alter the way we conceive of the written form. It’s a humbling thing in a reader’s life, to be immersed in this phenomenon, and when it occurs, there’s little else to do but savor the rarity.
Amelia Gray is one such writer, and her palette of work elicits this thunderstruck state. From her earlier collections of short fiction, AM/PM and Museum of the Weird, to her debut novel, Threats, Gray gallops head-first into storytelling with an outlaw’s sensibilities, tossing all the rules out the window to make way, unapologetically, for her own. She’s a punk rocker, a rebel, and her stories are a welcome shake-up from the norm. They’re the aftershocks of her earthquake force—tales infused with grit and dirt and grime, with jagged cracks running down their middles, with danger and reckless abandon—and Gray refuses to secure these narratives (or their characters) in any kind of harness. They’re freewheeling and loose and all the better for it.
Gutshot, Gray’s third and newest offering of short and micro-fiction, is an immensely gratifying addition to the writer’s growing bibliography. Published by FSG Originals, the imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux responsible for bringing to light the ingenuity of writers like Lindsay Hunter, Laura van den Berg and Catherine Lacey, Gutshot is a visceral joyride through the underbelly of humanity. A sordid symphony of sorts, the collection is composed of five parts, its 38 stories featuring a tangled array of thorny individuals. There’s a kidnapping couple, a postal worker with a terrible gag reflex, a woman dead-set on outsmarting a killer, people who literally peel off layers of skin during a date and a dead mother who is reincarnated as a zit, just to name a few members of Gray’s eclectic cast. All of their narratives are propelled forward by Gray’s distinct and gorgeous prose; hers is a world comprised of sentences and details we wish we could have thought of first, if only we inherited her enviable imagination.
Though she makes it look rather effortless, Gray’s journey to writing Gutshot was anything but. “For me, it required a lot of more bravery than I had when I was writing AM/PM,” she says. “I feel like I let down my guard in writing it, and pushed myself past the comfort level I’ve established in writing my books.”
Part of that push was eased by Gray’s ongoing collaboration with FSG Originals editor Emily Bell. Bell previously worked with Gray on Threats and the two are currently collaborating on Gray’s new in-progress novel. “Emily’s a genius,” Gray says, adding that it helps to have an editor who intimately understands and champions your work. Bell, she notes, was instrumental in arranging the stories in Gutshot and asking Gray to reconsider those that didn’t feel like a good fit in relation to the whole. “It’s a partnership and a relationship, and I’ve been really lucky,” she says. “It feels a little like magic with her—it’s just like finding a literary soulmate.”
The preservation of Gray’s voice has been crucial to her work, and to her growing success over the years. In 2012, Threats was shortlisted for the PEN/Faulkner Award, as well as longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. More recently, “Labyrinth,” a spin on the Greek myth of Theseus which appears in Gutshot, was featured in The New Yorker, and “These Are The Fables,” another story that appears in Gutshot, was selected by former CLMP Programs Director and current Texas Book Festival Literary Director Steph Opitz for Electric Literature’s “Recommended Reading” series.
Gray grew up in Tucson, hand-picking selections from her parents’ “great, crazy bookshelf,” from Richard Brautigan to Kurt Vonnegut to John Irving, and in high school discovered the power and excitement of the short story during an assignment in a philosophy class. Though she attended college with the intention of becoming a computer programmer, she eventually graduated with an English degree, influenced, in part, by a class during which she and her peers recited lines from James Joyce’s “Araby.”
“It felt so cool, and vital, and compelling,” Gray says of the experience.
She later went on to receive her MFA from Texas State University, and spent four post-graduation years living in Austin before relocating to Los Angeles, where she now splits her time between writing and working as a copywriter for an ad agency. Advertising, Gray notes, has been an interest of hers for a long time: “It’s so fun to look at a print ad and figure out all the angles of it, like a scientist.”
The bizarre goings-on of Gray’s adoptive home of Los Angeles are apparent in the embroidery of Gutshot. Traffic reports, for instance, have fed into her awareness of the sprawling metropolis and its affectations and coincidences. “I like to listen to what’s going on in this big, weird city,” she says. “There’s always a stack of mattresses on fire, or a truck has rolled into the ocean, or there’s a man walking in the middle of the highway, or a high-speed chase in the Valley. There’s always something strange going on.”
“If anything,” Gray adds, “L.A. has really impressed that on me: that there’s always something happening in the world, and it continues to happen.”
As the world’s temperament shifts, one can only hope Gray is there to relay all the details, whether they be curious, gory or something far more sinister.