Sit with the Echo: A Conversation with Ashley Wurzbacher

August 20, 2023   •   By Allie Rowbottom

How to Care for a Human Girl

Ashley Wurzbacher

I FIRST MET Ashley Wurzbacher in the thick of Texas summer, where the air is 97 degrees and 97 percent water and the roaches have wings plus a powerful thirst. It was 2011 and we had just arrived in Houston, where we would be two of five students admitted to the creative writing PhD program that year. We sat around a table in the Roy G. Cullen Building, taking turns saying our names and what we hoped to write. When the group came to Ashley, she said she was most interested in the lives of girls and women. My ears perked up: a potential kindred spirit.

As we trundled off to the obligatory campus tour, the one male writer in our cohort tried persistently to hold Ashley’s hand, promising that his wife back in his home country wouldn’t mind. That evening, over finger food, we bonded and giggled over his persistence: Don’t you want to hold my hand?

Five years went by in carpools to and from campus. In alligator-kebabs wine-down dates at our spot, 13 Celsius. In a sit-in on the university president’s floor. In dinner parties, some of them disastrous. When I think of us now, we were so young. Pure and academic and ambitious with books and moves and wins and losses ahead of us, everything a first and hazy on the horizon as a mirage of Texas heat. In the end, we made it.

Ashley’s first book, Happy Like This, a collection of stories written mostly during our time in Houston, received the Iowa Short Fiction Award and was published in 2019. She was a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree. The New York Times called her “a writer at the top of her game.” Nobody deserves it more. Her work is precise and so uniquely observant that she often takes my breath away. When I read an early copy of her new novel, How to Care for a Human Girl, last month, I felt seen to the point of discomfort. I felt challenged and consoled by the power of good writing to both challenge and console. I felt in awe of my brilliant friend, as I always have, and soon you will too. How to Care for a Human Girl follows two sisters, Jada and Maddy, both navigating unplanned pregnancies in the wake of their mother’s death. It is a richly layered, sometimes unsettling but never didactic exploration of choice that hit shelves on August 8. What follows is our conversation about craft, sisterhood, publishing, reviews, and what the best part of writing really is.


ALLIE ROWBOTTOM: Where did the idea for How to Care for a Human Girl come from? And when did it first dawn on you?

ASHLEY WURZBACHER: I started the book when we were in grad school. We were both doing coursework in women’s and gender studies and having conversations about feminism in 100-degree parking lots. This was in Texas in the days of Wendy Davis and her pink tennis shoes and her 13-hour filibuster in defense of abortion rights. Reproductive justice was on my mind a lot, and I knew I wanted to write about sisters dealing with simultaneous unplanned pregnancies in different ways that test their love and devotion to each other.

I’d been reading about Victoria Woodhull—a suffragist and free love advocate who ran for president in 1872, before women could vote—and her sister, Tennessee Claflin. Because I was intimidated by the scope of a novel-length project, and because I was afraid of plot, I decided to create fictional sisters, Jada and Maddy, who were modeled after Victoria and Tennie and whose lives would parallel theirs in key ways. But the more I got to know my characters, the more they began to depart from the historical figures that inspired them and outgrow the boundaries of my original idea. Eventually the draft Ship-of-Theseused its way into what it is now: the same book, but also not the same book.

Books morphing over the course of their construction into something else entirely is so common. I must have rewritten both my books with completely different structures several times before landing on the final form. It’s a process I guess we learn to trust in time.

We’ve both grown and changed a lot since the idea for this book came to you. For instance, I remember you saying back in Texas that your ideal novel was just women talking to each other and thinking things to themselves. I was like, “Hard same.” Now, maybe because technology has altered my attention span, or because I’m older and better-read and less enamored with “experimental” forms, I like a lot more plot. Can you say more about your fear of plot and also how your relationship to it has developed?

I think earlier in our writing careers we both leaned into ideas of plotlessness as a feminist statement, the whole “plots are penises” argument, because it let us off the hook for doing things we found difficult: puzzling through causal relationships between a story’s events and prioritizing the steady dialing-up of tension and conflict in our work. Feminist narrative theory let us view these things as boringly conventional at best and patriarchal/oppressive at worst. It gave me an excuse to stay within my comfort zone. You were into writing in fragments back then, and I was into … I don’t know, reflective meandering? And I still love quiet fiction that meanders and reflects, that takes its time exploring characters’ thoughts and feelings as much or more than it cultivates a suspenseful linear plot. But I no longer believe that considerations of plot and conflict are inherently in tension with the beauty of language or the female body or the experience of womanhood, and I no longer feel comfortable using “Plot is scary” or “Plot is a penis thrusting ever forward” as an excuse not to push my work in directions that could make it more engaging. Writing a novel—and especially working with my brilliant star of an editor, Natalie Hallak, to bring the novel into its final form—forced me to reckon with plot and conflict, to take a more expansive view of what they are, what they offer.

Dying over “plot is a penis thrusting ever forward”—I want that on a T-shirt. Back in grad school, I was definitely hiding behind the beautiful, imagistic, yet sometimes shallow brevity of the fragment form. And if someone criticized me, I’d be like, “You don’t understand, these fragments are a feminist statement.” But fragments can be sexy and stylistic to the point of saying nothing. You can easily drop things on a “profound” note in service of brevity right as the speaker or character is about to get into hot water or say something meaningful. Fragments can be a means to letting yourself and your characters off the hook.

It’s funny because often the best examples of l’ecriture feminine or even just literary fiction are full of conflict and plot, but in a slightly less obvious way than, say, a David Baldacci thriller. Just because something is plotted and carefully structured doesn’t make it lowbrow or unintellectual, which I think is another element of the “plot is a penis” line we both toed for a while.

Definitely. I think the relative unimportance of plot to short fiction—compared to the novel—was part of what kept me focused on short stories for so long. I still have such a fondness for stories and their narrow scope, but it was writing a novel that helped me confront my plot-related fears.

What made you want to write a novel? And how was it transitioning between short fiction and the novel form?

I started writing a novel because I felt like I had to for the sake of my story collection. Everyone said you can’t get an agent without a novel, you can’t sell a story collection without a novel, so I thought, okay, I guess I have to do this.

At first, I didn’t like novel writing—it felt so unwieldy—but I came around to it because of how much I came to care about Jada and Maddy. It’s hard to be as invested in the characters in your short stories because you haven’t spent as much time with them or inhabited them with the same level of intimacy. This connection sustained my interest in my novel, but it also eventually made it more difficult to put the book out into the world. The closer I felt to my characters, the more I feared the way the world might judge them.

On the subject of the world’s judgment, How to Care for a Human Girl handles the “hot button” issue of abortion with an even hand. It never preaches or even picks a side. I wouldn’t expect any less from you, and I think most readers will appreciate that. But some will be bummed when they don’t see their politics neatly reflected back to them. I guess I’m curious about how you approached the topic of abortion early on and if that approach changed at all in the course of your work on the novel. And if you feel like it, I’m also curious what you think the role of literary fiction is when it comes to the political divisions, questions, and struggles of our time?

I feel like the “right” answer is that reading fosters empathy and empathy is necessary to heal a divided nation? But I don’t know that readers are especially empathetic or that empathy really inspires meaningful action beyond the act of reading itself.

I appreciate when people praise the book for not being preachy, because I think morally obvious fiction is boring. (I know you do too.) I do think it’s true that the book doesn’t pick a side in terms of what Jada “should” do or what Maddy “should” do, but at the same time, this is a pro-choice book, and it can be a pro-choice book without screaming at readers or taking some clear villain to task. I don’t think it’s possible to read this book and say, “Yeah, clearly abortion should be illegal and women shouldn’t be able to make choices about how to live their lives.” Those choices, their urgency and difficulty and privacy and necessity, are at the heart of the book.

In my experience, some readers will project onto a novel a political stance they either agree with or deeply disagree with, as a means of processing the complicated and confusing emotions the book brought up for them. It’s always easier to slap a label on something than to sit in a stew of feelings that defy labels. With Aesthetica, readers are often like, “This book is anti-Instagram,” or “This book is anti–plastic surgery,” or “This book is a cautionary tale,” none of which is untrue but neither is it true. It’s both, and I think that’s an issue for some readers. I think it makes people uncomfortable not to be neatly instructed by a novel as to what is right and wrong and, as you say, fiction with an obvious moral stance has become a bit of a trend lately. And yet, in my opinion, the glory of fiction comes from a bunch of characters creating events and conflicts that the reader then gets to think about. I don’t think the meaning should be clear.

Recently we were talking about how, back when we were in graduate school, writing a whole book, let alone publishing one, felt like the dream. I’m curious how or if that dream has shifted or grown as you’ve brought not one but now two books out into the world?

Back before Happy Like This got picked up, I went through a long writing slump and string of rejections that tested my commitment to writing. I’d been sending HLT to agents and contests but hadn’t gotten any bites and didn’t know if I’d ever have a book. No one was asking me to write anymore, and it occurred to me that I no longer had to. I was tired of having my heart broken over and over again, and I had a full-time teaching job and enjoyed helping students hone their craft enough that I could envision a life where I just focused on that.

I sat with the idea but soon realized that it was not what I wanted, that I would continue writing whether or not I ever had a book or won a prize or got a residency, because writing was a fundamental part of my life and self. And it was like the writing fairies were watching to see what I would do, and I passed their fairy test, because shortly after that, Happy Like This won the Iowa Award. But I’m glad I gave myself permission to stop, because that was how I realized I didn’t want to. I did myself the kindness of giving myself a choice, and writing felt more meaningful to me after I made that choice.

I remember that time. It really was like the fairies came out for you, which led to the National Book Foundation selecting you as a “5 Under 35” honoree. Watching from the wings, it all felt like justice served to me. But now we both know that even with the waves of success that come with publication, it’s never exactly easy to put your work out into the world. I struggled with that so much with my first book. And with Aesthetica, my second, I thought I’d sort of figured out how things work and could therefore circumnavigate any emotional slumps that come with publication. And in some ways, I did, I think because (perhaps similarly to HLT) I had to fight for the novel every step of the way, which resulted in me adopting a sort of “fuck it” attitude. But I will say that now, for some vague publication-related reason I can’t articulate, I’m a touch depressed.

One of the best lessons I learned in publishing both my books, and watching my husband Jon Lindsey publish his novel too, is that I do best when I’m just doing my own thing, publicizing the book myself, ignoring external markers of success like best-of lists and awards. But then again, it’s always hard to completely dismiss such things.

Absolutely. You want to rise above external accolades, but they also have so much power to determine the course of your career. There’s this constant struggle between your private relationship to your writing and the public factors and pressures that bear down on it from outside.

I used to imagine that nothing could be better than the private joy of beholding my own book out in the world, but while of course that feels wonderful, it’s a pleasure that gets muddled by the vulnerabilities and logistics that come with letting people in on your relationship with your work. It’s nice to share what you’ve made, but at the end of the day the purest joy is the private joy that comes from the high points of your daily labor as you work on a project you’re excited about. Whether it’s putting down a sentence that excites you or crafting an image you find beautiful, that’s the beating heart of it all. I wish I could go back and tell my younger self that, although I’m sure her eyes would have rolled ALL the way back in her head, and I’m sure my future self will want to go back and slap me for saying it if, down the road, I can’t publish another book.

You’re totally right: the best part of writing is the time when the work is still in process and we as its makers can exist in a state of creative flow. I find that the more I publish, the more I have to remind myself of just that.

I’m in the weeds in the best way right now with a new novel. And having just put a novel out, I feel very aware that I’m in the best phase of this new book’s life. I love working on it. I love losing myself and all concept of time to the world I’m building. And yet, I can’t stop rushing. Some of this is the urgency of writing itself, by which I mean the urgency that comes with having something you just have to say, and the compulsion to get it said. But I also feel driven by the achievement side of things, even as I know I usually don’t like it, and that comparing myself to other writers I suspect have sold better or won awards is absolute death to my creativity. There’s a lot about the business side of writing that we can’t control. All we can control is the quality of our work, the art of it. And that’s what’s honed in the writing phase of things. It’s a time when everything is still in our hands.

But now that this book is out of your hands, what do you hope for its readers?

I hope they empathize with the characters and savor the sentences. I love sentences and put a lot of thought into how to craft them—how long they should be, how they should be punctuated (or not), what sort of cadence they should form, how they will live in relation to neighboring sentences. I know this is something you think a lot about too; you’ve talked about reading Aesthetica out loud to yourself with an ear for its rhythms.

People often praise books by saying they read them in one sitting. I suppose they mean that the plot and characters held their attention consistently. But I’m never sure how to feel about that sort of praise. I’ve never read an adult book in a single sitting. I read slowly because I want to hear the sentences. If the sentences are sleek and musical, I’m engaged, I’m happy, but that still doesn’t make me read faster. It makes me read slower because I want to hear the words again and sit with their echo before I move on.

What do you hope for readers in general?

My stance as a reader has changed since publishing two books because I feel more aware than ever of a book as a lovingly crafted thing. I am more likely to reach out to the authors of books I’ve enjoyed to express my appreciation.

On the other hand, and we’ve talked about this before, I’ve noticed changes in the way people read, and what they read for. People are more than ever on the lookout for something to object to in the art, or expecting the art to confirm their biases and affirm the correctness of their morals or politics. I’ve compared it to metal detecting: the reader searches for something hard and sharp—it could be anything from a typo to a perceived microaggression to an action by a character they don’t approve of—and when they find it they just sort of start beeping. They’re waiting for the book to make a mistake. I think when you’re reading, you shouldn’t be trying to “beat” the book.

I would also love to see readers move on from the trend of declaring characters “likable” or “unlikable.” The ability to like lies in the reader, not the character. “Unlikeable” is a term that lets us off the hook for considering a person’s humanity. It makes characters a spectacle. It’s also puritanical: characters and writers are either sinners or saints, and the reader pronounces judgments on them from on high. (And usually, of course, it’s women characters—and the work of women writers—on the receiving end of these harsh judgments.) I think reading is about being someone else, and when you’re inhabiting someone, it’s hard to wag your finger at them. That’s not to say I never find things characters say and do objectionable, but I prefer to give the author the benefit of the doubt and say, well, I can’t believe we’re going here, but here we go.

Ultimately, I think it’s nice to picture the book in the author’s hands being held out to you. Technically the physical book is a commodity that you bought, now own, and can throw across the room or rant about online if you choose, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s first and foremost a carefully crafted offering from a human person to the world. This doesn’t mean everyone has to love every book—we’re given gifts all the time that we don’t want; we refuse plenty of what we’re offered. But I think it’s good to be mindful of the love and labor that brings art into being.

I am very grateful for the gift of your work and the myriad other gifts you’ve given me over the years. For example, the time you took me to Hotel ZaZa right before my wedding and bought me many drinks. When a troupe of firemen came in (on official business), I thought they were strippers and loudly proclaimed, “MY FIREMEN ARE HERE.” It was also a gift that they were not, in fact, strippers because I think that would have turned out weird. Another gift: a few months later, after I was married and my mom had just died, we met at our spot (13 Celsius). I think you were the first person I’d really talked to since so much change befell me. I don’t remember much about that time, but I remember sitting at the bar with you. Also the time at the Rainbow Room after our book event for Happy Like This when we met Ron Jeremy.

When I think about gifts exchanged between us, I think of the earrings you gave me that were made with beads from your mother’s jewelry. When you gave them to me, we reflected on your mother’s friendships with other women and the central, lifelong role some of them played in her life—as you describe beautifully in JELL-O Girls. We made a commitment to be there for each other in a similar way. And here we are, doing that now.


Ashley Wurzbacher is the author of How to Care for a Human Girl (2023) and the short story collection Happy Like This, which won the 2019 Iowa Short Fiction Award and was named a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree and a New York Times Editors’ Choice. She holds an MFA from Eastern Washington University and a PhD from the University of Houston, and lives in Birmingham, Alabama.

Allie Rowbottom is the author of the novel Aesthetica (2022) and the memoir JELL-O Girls (2018). She holds a PhD from the University of Houston and lives in Los Angeles.