"Less of a Victim and More of a Perpetrator": An Interview with Aubrey Hirsch

Aubrey Hirsch is the author of a collection of short stories, Why We Never Talk About Sugar, and a chapbook, This Will Be His Legacy. Her work has appeared widely in journals like Third Coast, The Rumpus, American Short Fiction, PANK, Hobart, and The Pinch. She currently teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh. You can learn more about her at aubreyhirsch.com.

Her essay, "Things I've Watched Die," appears in Issue Fifty-Eight of The Collagist.

Here, Aubrey Hirsch talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about death, surprise, and blurring the boundaries of genre.

Tell us about the origin of your essay, “Things I’ve Watched Die.” What sparked the initial idea for this piece?

The experience that begins the essay, of watching my grandmother die, was the launching point. I’d never seen a person die and it was such a startling, singular experience that I knew I’d have to write about it at some point. However, I’ve taught enough first-year essay writing classes to know that everyone has a story about losing a beloved grandparent. I wanted my essay to be about that, but also not about that. I wanted to give it something else to hang on.

This essay isdivided into four sections: Grandmother, Hamsters, Fish, and Bugs, Insects, Arachnids. The arrangement seems unexpected to me, beginning with human life and ending with bugs. When did you know and how did you decide that the instances of death should progress in this particular order—from biggest to smallest, or perhaps from least agency to most agency (in your involvement, that is)?

It took a while for me to know that, actually! I originally wrote this essay in the reverse order (starting with the bugs and ending with the grandmother). It seemed obvious that this arrangement would allow for the greatest build in tension. But when I finished it, the ending just fell sort of flat. It had a lot of build, but the payoff wasn’t there. After putting it away for a while, I tried it again in the reverse order. I think it’s more unexpected this way. And this ending, for me, does make the writer less of a victim and more of a perpetrator. I think it hits a more surprising note.

My cursory research of you online yielded mostly results pertaining to your fiction. What led you to write about deaths in this personal, essayistic manner rather than fictionalizing your experiences? What opportunities does nonfiction grant you as an author that fiction cannot?

I do consider myself primarily a fiction writer, but I’m becoming more and more comfortable as an essayist. When I talk about determining genre for a piece, I always give my students the same advice: if you can write it as nonfiction, you should. As a writer in both genres, I think the market for nonfiction is better. And as a reader, I think there’s something powerful about knowing that a story you’re reading is true. The label lends a bit of weight to your narrative; it turns up the volume on a piece that might otherwise seem quiet. This particular piece is an essay because it has to be. If it weren’t true, I’m not sure there’d be enough of a reason for the reader to care.

You’re also the author of a series of what you call “counterfactual biographies”—fictional stories about historical people. What appeals to you most about writing about Amelia Earhart and Al Gore in this way? (Why do you think we mythologize not only our fictional characters but also real-life people? When will an actual, factual biography simply not suffice?)

I always enjoy playing with genre and blurring the lines between fact and fiction. I’ve collected those counterfactual biographies into a chapbook (This Will be His Legacy), which was published in the spring. I think what’s so appealing about that project is being able to take an historical figure and imagine those bits of his or her life that aren’t recorded. What was the person thinking? What motivated him? How might these seemingly disparate events in a person’s public life be connected in their inner life? As I would do the research for these pieces, I was amazed at the patterns that would emerge and the ideas that would seem to reveal themselves. Fictionalizing the events of someone’s life allows me to move past the boundaries that would limit a biographer. I can look inside the person, find what might be in there, and, if I can’t find anything, I can make it up.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m working on a novel. And I’m always working on shorter pieces, too. I currently write a monthly blog post on parenting for Brain, Child. You can find more of my work at aubreyhirsch.com.

What enjoyable things have you been reading this summer?

I’m currently reading Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State. I’m teaching a new class with a focus on gender studies in the fall, so I’ve been spending most of my time studying up on that.