An interview with Stay and Fight author Madeline ffitch, an anarchist organizer and writer selected as a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Debut Novel Award and the L.A. Times Book Prize earlier this year.
Intro and questions by Panagioti Tsolkas
The definition of success can be blurry for people and movements striving against the competitive tendencies that permeate most every facet of modern life. But I think an agreed upon goal for counter-cultural artists and activists would be something to the effect of launching a project that has the potential to move people to action, particularly in the trajectory of liberation in some form.
On this front, Madeline ffitch’s book Stay and Fight succeeds, with flying colors, and maybe some black flags too.
I’ve been around small press writing and publishing endeavors for my entire adult life. It’s rare that an author breaks out of subcultural literary circles to land on book shelves full of people who write about conflict, but by and large have never stood at a blockade or faced off with riot cops. It’s near impossible to compete with the authenticity that comes from people who choose to interweave struggle throughout their personal, creative and political lives.
I had nothing to do with writing this book, but I still feel some ownership over the story. And that is, or should be, considered a victory by every artist, activist, writer or musician.
I saw myself, my friends, my family, so many times while frantically turning the pages of ffitch’s book. Reading by headlight in the outhouse, sneaking in a few pages whenever my kids were distracted enough. I devoured it.
I laughed out loud so many times, not just because it’s funny as hell, but also because it hit so close to home in this way that I would think of other radical homesteading parent friends and want to call them to read excerpts to them in disbelief that our totally absurd experiences had not only been captured, but favorably reviewed by Oprah’s book club.
Madeline fiftch nailed it, hard. From the daily struggles of parenthood and partnerships to the battles against displacement and industrial extraction, her book weaves together hilarious and gut-wrenching tales about those of us who live for the fight. Perhaps sometimes too much so.
I’ve had the fortune of sharing experiences with Madeline that include both organizing in the Earth First! movement and parenting children on our respective homesteads. I decided to ask her a few questions about Stay and Fight, the responses she’s gotten about it, and her plans for the future (sparing you the banter about our children’s schooling follies, ridding our homes of pinworms, etc).
What inspired you to write this book?
Mf: When I moved to Appalachian Ohio, I worked running chainsaws and rigging rope for an arborist and that job was a great way to spend a lot of time out in the hills and meet neighbors and get to know the area in a pretty immediate and up close way. I was interested right away in all the stories people told about black rat snakes, many of which made it into the book in one way or another. Another thing I noticed were all the unlikely relationships that often confronted preconceived ideas I might have about who would know each other or get along. Beginning to understand the interreliance people share in rural places, and the unpredictable ways people who might seem to be at odds build trust across differences and through conflict made me want to write.
Is there someone you most identify with in the story?
Mf: It’s funny, biographically, I’m most like Helen, because I grew up on the west coast and moved to a piece of “raw” land in Appalachian Ohio, where I have been making a go of it for the past ten years. But I like to think that’s where the similarities between her and I end. I mean, I definitely used her character as a way to observe, exaggerate, or even critique aspects of myself, but I don’t think I’m much like her. Karen is the character who makes the most sense to me emotionally, whose motives I feel closest to, which is also funny because some of the most consistent feedback I get is what a jerk she is. I think, really? She’s the only reasonable person in there, even though she’s flawed.
Does “Stay and Fight” refer to a relationship, a place, or both? If both, is it one more than the other?
Mf: I wanted to name the book Stay and Fight because it describes family; it describes life partnership; it describes neighbor relationships, the ways communities come to rely on each other when the weather is bad and when times are hard. It refers to the way that often, the people we come to trust are, as Karen says, “the people who stick around to fight with us,” not necessarily the people we like best or are most compatible with, but people who are most consistently present, and who are willing to move through conflict together. Stay and Fight also describes what people all over the world, from Appalachia to Black Mesa to Standing Rock to Palestine, are doing to resist displacement against great odds.
What sort of reactions have you gotten from people within the counterculture that the book is depicting? How has it differed from people outside of it?
Mf: I’ve noticed this book sends out different signals to different communities. Reading in rural places, and especially in libraries, I’ve had country people want to talk to me about the details in the book about hunting and gathering, how it compares to their experiences, or about chainsaws, or especially to share snake stories.
A lot of people in Athens County Ohio recognize themselves very deeply in the book, and I think it’s led to a lot of conversations, since the book depicts the way we all relate to each other and not necessarily in a sugar-coated way.
I was a little bit worried about how local people would react and have been overwhelmed by kindness and enthusiasm for the book. It was the bestseller in the local bookstore over the summer. Then, also, I have loved how the anti-authoritarian themes, which I feel like bubble up in a pretty ordinary way, have landed with this whole other crowd, the anarchists and radicals and weirdos and organizers who I love, and it’s meant a whole lot to hear feedback from them. Of course there’s overlap here, like both of these groups understand eating roadkill, whereas more upscale urban or college audiences I read for think that part is outlandish.
One thing I’ve noticed is that mainstream people seem to think the book is “stereotype busting,” but to people within the communities I’m writing about, we didn’t have those stereotypes anyway. So, it’s no surprise to us to find how complicated people are, ethically, politically, etc., no matter where they live or who they love or how they identify.
You make several efforts to address racism in the book. Have you gotten any feedback on how that was received by readers?
Mf: Often, white writers (of which I am one) try to opt out of writing about race, and that erases all we know and observe and participate in; it ignores or denies the relationships we are in, with neighbors, family, friends, coworkers, and adversaries. Maybe because often white people aren’t proud of those relationships or how we act in them, or because we’re just trained not to look, notice, or comment on race.
We are trained to act like we’re not part of it. This is very bad training for humans and definitely horrible training for real storytellers. I don’t want to opt out of anything when it comes to storytelling, let alone this difficult terrain, but I also don’t want to try to write with an authoritative voice or virtue-signal about race. I’m just in here with everyone else. I begin with what I have observed or overheard, often using bits of conversation or relationships or dynamics I know but am still trying to fully understand myself.
When I have questions or think I’m missing things, I run material by people I think might see themselves in the material (not demographically but specifically), and get feedback that way, though of course I am sure I’m still missing things and I still have questions.
Because of the history of white-washing Appalachia, and the continued white nationalist recruitment efforts here to paint this area as some kind of white ethno-state, I have been grateful to receive positive feedback here about interrupting the narrative of uncomplicated whiteness attached to this region.
Perley, the child in the story, is raised by two moms. What made you decide on that?
Mf: The story began as a way to explore the relationship I had with two good friends of mine, women, and their child, as we were all figuring out how to raise children and live with very few amenities. These are the relationships and characters that presented themselves to me because they were so close to my everyday life. But as the story progressed, it became highly fictionalized and departed dramatically from anything directly biographical. I still dedicated the book to them, though, and we’re still close.
How much of the story came from your experience as a child versus your experience as a parent?
Mf: More of Perley’s character came from my experience as a child. My first kid was a baby, and my second kid wasn’t born yet when I finished the first draft of the book. Nector, my oldest, is just now right about Perley’s age. So I really imagined and remembered the inner, vulnerable, wild parts about being a kid, and translating your home life that seems normal to you, to your more public life at school where suddenly you realize you’re weird. I didn’t have as hard a go of it as Perley did, but I think most of us can tap into that misfit feeling, and also the exits from everyday literal reality into the elf world.
The pipeline issue in the book seemed very much like a nod to your involvement with radical environmental groups like Earth First! What have mainstream enviro-types had to say about it?
Mf: Hahaha, it’s fiction, so it’s perfect for mainstream enviro-types who can live out their sabotage fantasies without having to commit to them. I mean, seriously, I think for a lot of people who have been doing the hard boring work of filing public comments etc., and not getting any satisfaction, let alone all the direct action activists who are doing their best and facing so much repression and defeat (not to be defeatist), it makes sense to read a novel where people don’t know what else to do and see no other option but to blow that shit up.
In early drafts, my editor wanted to make sure I had really thought through the implications of telling a story like that. She was a bit cautious about the ethics; I added a few lines to make it clear that the sabotage happened without any human casualties.
You come from a DIY punk scene. How did it feel to work with a larger publisher on this book?
Mf: It’s been an interesting process. I checked in with an older punk writer early on who I really admire, and she reminded me that so many of the books that have meant the most to us fell into our hands because of broad distribution, and that has made me feel good about reaching a bigger audience; just remembering all the times a good book came to me when I needed it as a lonely teen or whatever, because it had the reach of being on a mainstream press.
But yeah, it’s pretty different. One thing the punks do really well is cook food for people on tour, and I have definitely been surprised at how hungry I am when I show up to bookstore readings. I’m like, how do these people do it? Isn’t anyone else hungry? Also, indie and punk presses create community around them, so readings and literary events feel like parties. I liked talking to the folks at FSG [Farrar, Straus and Giroux publishing company] about that when I started working with them.
Do you have other books in the works? If so, can you give a sneak peak?!
Mf: I am working on another novel about a recently divorced mother who moves back in with her mother, a grumpy public librarian and organizer. As neo-fascists encroach on the town, the multi-generational family and the entire community has to figure out how they will respond or whether they will try to stay on the sidelines.
Are there other writers who you think people should be on the lookout for?
Mf: The most recent book I bought was Billy Ray Belcourt’s poems, NDN Coping Mechanisms. I’m a prose writer and reading poetry is really important to me, it makes my writing way better to not just be reading prose all the time. I’m also really excited about Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s book Freezerdoor which is coming out soon. She is amazing at subverting ideas about plot and language and genre. And so many others. I’m reading all the time.
Panagioti Tsolkas is a former editor of the Earth First! Journal, co-founder of Fight Toxic Prisons and a community organizer who has been published and cited in numerous publications and books. He lives on a small farm in Florida with his partner and two children.