Interview with Quan Barry, author of We Ride Upon Sticks
Image via Goodreads
Quan Barry is the author of a new novel, We Ride Upon Sticks, which is a book about a young girl’s field hockey team in Danvers, Massachusetts who desperately want to make their way to the state finals, and they’re even willing to tap into some Salem witch ancestry to help achieve their goal. Barry is also the author of She Weeps Each Time You’re Born, and poetry books such as Loose Strife and Water Puppets. Barry grew up in Danvers, Massachusetts, got her MFA from the University of Michigan, became a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University, and now teaches poetry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
A self taught fiction writer, Barry's novel uniquely interrogates the 80s through the lens of a dynamic field hockey team. Her affinity for poetry is certainly evident in the graceful prose of her novel, as the team navigates their identities and chosen community.
Barry and Tyler sat down in late-October, over Zoom in this COVID-19 world. They discussed the themes of the novel, as well as Barry's own writing process (or lack thereof) and advice for poets and fiction writers alike. A whole-hearted thank you goes out to Barry, whom we are especially lucky to have on staff at UW-Madison.
We Ride Upon Sticks is set in a somewhat nostalgic 80’s. Other than it relating to your growing up, is there any other connection to that time period that you found important to circle back to?
Interesting question. I would say yes. So, as you mentioned, I did come of age in the ‘80s, so that’s a time that is very dear to my heart, but at the same time, as we recognize now in 2020, the ‘80s were kind of a problematic time. You know, when you look at pop culture, when you look at some of the teen movies of the day which we all didn’t have a problem with, but there’s loads of misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, you know all these things that we just didn’t question back then. And so I wanted to go back to a time period that was important to me but rethink it through again and talk it through in more depth. So I think often times people just think of the ‘80s as being oh it’s that funny time when the music was cool and everybody wore those funny clothes and had funny hair, but it was also the time when you know the AIDS crisis was starting up, crack was in the inner cities. Various things were happening. So I wanted to create a more realistic portrayal of the 1980s now that we are more woke and we realize there were problems back then.
The book is narrated in a collective “we,” and the story centers on a team of mostly young girls, so this collectivism and companionship seems to be a major theme. Is this something you think that society lacks today? Or do you take a side on the individualist vs collectivist debate we often have today?
When I was writing the book I wasn’t thinking about it. You can definitely read it through various lenses like that, but for me, I was really thinking in terms of what does the book need, what does this story need, right?—because it’s told from a collective point of view, because it’s about a team. I like to make the joke there’s no ‘I’ in team, you know? And so as I was thinking about how best to tell the story, it became obvious to me that the team would tell the story and it would be this collective thing. I also think too, when you think in terms of, like, witchcraft, particularly when you’re thinking in terms of women and covens and what we even mean by those kinds of terms—in many ways a coven is a community—and so I was thinking about it in terms of spaces that women create when they create community, so it made sense to me that I wouldn’t have one central narrator, but that it would come from, again, this collective body. Having said that, as I said, for me it was what was in service of the book, and yet as you mention you can read other kinds of things into it, so the idea of, you know, now more than ever we do need to think of ourselves as a collective, we need to work as a collective, unity, all those kinds of fun things. So yes, it wasn’t my initial intention, but I think it’s there.
What is your approach to fiction writing? Does it differ from your approach to poetry writing? Do you start with a complete idea or do you start with a concept and theme and find a story as you write?
Yeah, it is very different from my poetry writing, but do I know how it’s different from my poetry writing? Hmmm… When it comes to fiction, I’m self-taught. You know, my MFA is in poetry. All the classes I took as an undergrad, as a graduate student, as a fellow, I lived completely in a poetry world, but I’m always telling my students we know so much about fiction because we watch movies, we read novels, we watch T.V. shows, so even if you’ve never taken a fiction class, you know things about point-of-view, and setting, and character, and plot—you know all that kind of stuff. In many ways we’re all pretty sophisticated story tellers right from day one. Me, I started writing stories, that was how I first started writing fiction, and it’s true stories did not necessarily come super easily to me because the stories that I would write tended to be very poetic in the sense that they didn’t have plots, hahaha, you know, they were very much language driven and that kind of stuff, and so it took me a while to figure out oh yeah plot, character, oh okay, but then once I began to figure that kind of fun stuff out, I realized too that sometimes I would hear a story and I would be like, that’s a novel, because I would realize there’s “enough meat on the bones,” to tell something fully. Like for example my first book, She Weeps Each Time You’re Born you know I had been trying to write this book about an American nurse in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, but it just was not going well. I was trying to research it; I was doing all these things. I went back to Vietnam—I was with a guide and with the guide I ended up hearing this story about a woman in Vietnam who is the “Official Psychic of Vietnam” in the sense that she was bitten by a rabid dog when she was a child and after she came out of her coma, she allegedly could hear the voices of the dead. And when I heard about this person, I instantly was like, there’s a novel in there—this idea of somebody in Vietnam who can hear the voices of the dead. Like I just heard that, and I knew, bam! Like I remember getting on my guide’s motorcycle afterwards and being like, this is what my novel is about—oh my god! I heard that story and like I said, it was just there.
Another book that I’m currently working on that will hopefully be out in 2022: I was in Mongolia, maybe 2014—I was in Mongolia a while ago and, you know, often times when I’m in places I often don’t know what I’m going to do with them. I don’t know how this is going to become something. And so I was in Mongolia many many years ago, and then years after being there, I heard a quote from the Dalai Lama who said at the time that He was thinking about taking the unprecedented step of reincarnating while He was still alive, because His fear is that the Chinese will name His successor and basically the next Dalai Lama will be a puppet. And so at the time He was talking like, “Maybe I’ll reincarnate now and pick my own successor,” you know? And it turns out now He says He’s not gonna do that, but at the time when I heard that story, same thing—I was like, bam! So my book’s not necessarily about finding the Dalai Lama, but it’s about finding a reincarnation in Mongolia. Again, I just heard that story, and I was like, oh ok, or I heard that quote, and it just sparked this idea and I knew there was enough there. The idea of going out, finding a reincarnation, particularly in the country of Mongolia which is so vast. You know, I just heard that, and it was like…. So sometimes it works like that. Sometimes, you know I have another thing I hope to start working on in the next year after I finish edits on that Mongolia book. I went to Antarctica a long time ago and I just knew that someday I’d probably use it somehow, and now thinking a lot about the social unrest that’s been happening since the killing of George Floyd, I thought I want to write something that thinks about this idea of how people of different disparate cultures and backgrounds come together and what happens when you bring them together under stressful situations. So thinking about a book that in some ways is sort of informed by like Lord of the Flies. They’re stranded on this island, all these kids have to survive, and so I’ve come up with this idea of a book in which tourists in Antarctica get stranded on an island. You know, they’re all from different walks of life, and the question is how do they make it through? So that’s kind of a different thing where something happened in the news and then I knew I wanted to write something inspired by it—I just had to think through what would be a situation in which I would have enough material to be able to write a novel about it. So plots come from all different kinds of places.
And your question to how is it different from poetry? Poetry usually for me: it’s the idea that there’s something that I want to figure out. Like there’s a question or an image, or something that’s happened, and I wanna just know, I wanna explore it deeper. What does that thing represent? What does it mean? What are the questions it inspires? So my poetry is much more question-based whereas my fiction is much more story focused, obviously more storytelling based.
What does your writing routine look like? Is there a routine?
Right now there is none. Haha. When I was an undergrad and when I was a graduate student, I very much had a routine because I could. You know, I was in class, I had deadlines, I had things I had to do, and I was learning how to be a writer. And after I graduated from my MFA program, I was a fellow for two years at Stanford, and in many ways I like to say that that actually taught me how to be a writer, because when I was a fellow at Stanford, I didn’t have any deadlines. I didn’t have anything I had to do, and so I had to learn to be self-disciplined and to be my own workshop, to set my own deadlines to get things done on my own. Which sometimes it can sound like, for a writer, “Oh my god, you have all this free time, that’s amazing!” but sometimes we need to have those constraints, like a class, or a professor telling you what to do, and when you don’t have that, for some people it becomes deadly. They’re just not writing.
Yeah, I learned how to be a writer at Stanford. Then when I came to Wisconsin, I had to learn how to maintain things while still having a pretty busy schedule. At Stanford I didn’t have anything to do, so I had to learn how to be self-disciplined. Wisconsin, I had a lot to do but I still had to learn to make my own deadlines and work in what I’m going to be doing while I’m also teaching. And so for me, as far as what my schedule looks like, one of the big things, I have to admit for whatever reason it’s not an issue for me, for other writers it can be, but I never feel bad about not writing. Some writers feel, “Oh I haven’t written in a long time, agh!” I never feel bad about not writing. I don’t know why, I just don’t. When I’m not writing… again I have to admit during the semester it can be hard for me to write. Sometimes, for example, We Ride Upon Sticks, I did write a lot of that while I was teaching. And how I did that is I just wrote a page a day. I would just tell myself, alright, I’m just gonna write a page a day. And the truth is, I would say in a week’s time, I would feel lucky if I had four or five pages, which means I obviously didn’t write every day, but that would be my goal. Okay I’m gonna write a page a day, and again at the end of the week if I had four or five pages, I’m really happy. If I have more, hey great. So that was my goal then. And for whatever reason, I think that because I knew that book, like I knew the characters, I knew the story, I knew what was going to be happening “ish” in a rough kind of way. So it was easy for me to do that because when I sat down I already knew where I was, where I was going. On the other hand, for this semester I tried working on my book about Antarctica. I don’t know it as well, and so I was trying to do the same thing where I was trying to write a page a day, and just because this semester in general is harder, just with all the online stuff, and because the world is a little bit more difficult, I haven’t been able to keep up the page a day on that project, but I’m looking forward to getting back to it.
The thing that I will admit is that I’m a huge reader. And I don’t say that with any pride—it’s just for whatever reason I’m just built that way. Sometimes I’ll hear other writers I know complain about how they never have time to read, and I never say anything, but the thing is I know that they watch T.V., and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing because I think we can learn a lot from T.V. and we need escape and that kind of stuff. I’m not knocking it, but it’s true I don’t own a T.V. I do have Netflix and I have Hulu and I’m not exaggerating that since January I’ve watched two shows. I watched Lost in Space and I watched What We Do in the Shadows. It just doesn’t interest me; I just don’t watch T.V. that much. I don’t know, it’s weird. And because I don’t watch T.V. and because I’m not writing, it’s a time I look forward to at night, after dinner, starting around 7:00 PM—I just read. And so that’s one of the reasons that I don’t feel bad if I’m not writing because I’m always reading. But the inverse also happens for me. When I am writing, then I’m not reading. So for example if I was writing a page a day, I would probably do that page at night which means then that I wouldn’t be reading. So it’s a tradeoff. If I’m not writing, I’m reading. If I’m reading, I’m not writing.
Is there a critical aspect to poetry that you think all young poets should know? Anything you would say is universally important?
That’s a hard one. One thing all poets should know…I think, this is gonna be broad, and as you know every rule is made to be broken, right? And so, I think though, I don’t know, there’s a part of me that kind of wishes that poets…maybe this is younger poets, older poets I wouldn’t say this about, but for emerging poets a couple of things I wish they knew: I wish they realized they can make stuff up. Like people sometimes feel very much like, “That’s what happened!” so I have to stick to it. Yeah that might be what happened but obviously in fiction we always are open to changing things and rethinking things et cetera, but in poetry for whatever reason we feel like we have to be like, “But that’s what happened!” Yeah, that might be what happened but your poem might be served better by tweaking it. Tell the truth but tell it slant. I wish younger poets had more courage to change the truth in that sense. And then the other thing that I kind of wish: I’m always trying to get students to write about what they love. You know, I see this a lot particularly in my forms class, because you know when we’re doing more traditional forms, I think people think, “Ooh it’s blank verse, I have to write about nature. Or ooh, I’m writing a sonnet, I have to write about love.” And it’s the idea when you’re using these forms, it’s like no, you have to think about them in your contemporary time, and what is it that you love? You know, I had a student a couple years ago who it turned out loved wrestling, like WWE, and I was like: write some wrestling poems. You don’t have to write about fall, the fall colors. How many poems do I get every September about fall? You know what I mean? It’s just like yeah, I get it, it’s autumn, but what are you really into? So I wish that more folks realized, “Hey yeah poetry, I could be writing about wrestling!”
Finally, since we’re in the Halloween season as we speak, and your novel fits in that realm as well, any horror movie/book recommendations?
Books. I can’t watch horror movies. For my entire life, it’s a long story, but the only horror movie I ever saw I accidentally saw with my grandmother Mimi up in Door County. Prince of Darkness. We saw it in like the 1980s. It was terrible and I was just horrified. Yeah it was bad, I couldn’t sleep all night. So, but books. Two horror-ish books come to mind instantly. One, it’s a classic, I only recently read it, it’s only a hundred pages, it’s considered like a classic of the gothic horror genre. It’s called, The Great God Pan. It’s from like 1890. I don’t think it’s a contemporary of Dracula, but it’s kind of like that. It’s kind of maybe written in letter form, I haven’t read it in a while, but maybe it’s epistolary. Again it’s called The Great God Pan, and it’s true at first I was reading it and was like, “What is going on!?” Because each chapter you get different characters that just suddenly appear, but then after a while you finally figure it out and you’re like oh ok. It’s just super creepy, considering it came out in 1890. Plus I love the name, The Great God Pan. You know what I mean? It’s just creepy creepy.
And we all know Shirley Jackson because she wrote “The Lottery,” but she’s so much more than that. It’s true, like The Haunting of Hill House is a classic. And then another book of hers, it’s one of those books that I thought I wasn’t going to finish it, and then I got to the end and I was like, “What!?” And that is a book called Hangsaman. And the thing about it: it’s about a young girl that goes off to college, and like I said there were definitely times in it, it’s about 240 pages, there were times in it when I thought, I’m not gonna keep going. This is not adding up to anything. But then you go all the way to the end and suddenly you’re not quite sure what you read. Hahaha. Like, “What just happened!? What’s going on?” You know, that kind of stuff. It’s a pretty crazy book. And I recommend it because it’s just so weird and so different from what folks are doing now. But it is true that you come to the end and I can’t say that it’s necessarily satisfying, but considering it’s 240 pages, she is a master of going from zero to ten as far as creepiness goes. For example, in the first fifteen pages there’s a party, the girl’s parents have a party, and then this thing happens at the party that’s goes from zero to twenty as far as creepiness. Like, “Oh my god!” It’s just so creepy, and the same thing happens at the end. So the whole book is just building, building, things are going along, and then BAM! That’s why it takes a long time to get there, that’s why you’re like, “Is this worth it?” But at the very end the creepiness goes fwooom! Just off the page. You’re like, “What is going on!?” And it’s super creepy. It’s definitely worth the payoff for the creepiness.
Interview with Tyler Moore, Poetry Editor for The Madison Review