Jen Michalski: Congratulations on the publication of What If We Were Somewhere Else. Can you tell us a bit about the book’s origins—your motivations and how you came to work with SFWP?
Wendy J. Fox: Like many writers of literary fiction, my debut was a collection of short stories. And, “collection” was the correct word. In that book, even though it is slim, there’s a wide range of time happening, stories that ranged in the writing from grad school to the more (then) present, when it came out in 2014.
I’ve also written two novels, but the form of the short story continues to compel me. I wrote What If We Were Somewhere Else not in the mode of the collection of disparate stories, but intentionally as interlinked narratives.
I came to SFWP after winning their contest for my novel If the Ice Had Held in 2017. I submitted because I admired their work.
JM: I did enjoy the interlocking narratives of the employees at the company in the collection, and loved how the ventilation system in the office and their perspectives on it become sort of this metaphorical barometer for their physical borders, comfort/views of each other, and their emotional lives. And I appreciate these kinds of absurdist workplace tableaus because I entered the office workforce after college in the early 90s, one that’s been immortalized in Office Space and Dilbert and The Office and the like. Did you have the same experience? When did you realize that you wanted to write about work? Was there a particular character with whom you started and it expanded from there?
WJF: I think it wasn’t so much that I specifically wanted to write about work, but more that work was taking over my life when I began the first of these stories, which was in 2015. It’s kind of interesting when I think about it now, because my first collection (The Seven Stages of Anger, Press 53, 2014) would have been out the year before, and by then I would have known that my debut novel (The Pull of It, Underground Voices, 2016) was on its way into the world. I would have also had a full draft of what became my second novel, If the Ice Had Held (SFWP, 2019). It seems like from a writing standpoint, I should have been feeling pretty good, but I really wasn’t.
And yes, the absurdity of the office was on my mind—including the physical space of it. I worked at a tech company in Denver’s first high-rise, the fourteen-story Petroleum Building, built in the 1950s. It was old and dirty, and there was a lounge on top floor that used to be a private club for the oilmen. It had some weird energy, and even though the suites were slowly remodeled in the seven years I spent there, the vibe just wouldn’t change. For example, the elevators were original to the building, but even when the cars were replaced, it just still felt like rolling to dice to hop on.
At the same time, my boss was both extremely cheap and extremely insistent on the idea of in-person work, so we just dealt with it. These spaces become part of the texture of our lives, and for me also very emblematic of how very little care or consideration organizations often have for their employees. When I think of it now, I think how he (the CEO) was actively okay with the daily discomfort of staff. It’s a total microcosm of the Bezos is in space / Amazon warehouse worker is peeing in a soda bottle.
JM: Man, I hear you. So yeah, this is a definite pattern for you! Your second novel, If the Ice Had Held, also consisted of interlinked narratives. What drew you specifically to this trope? Are there other authors working in this form that opened you up to the possibility?
WJF: I was working on both If the Ice Had Held and What if We Were Somewhere Else in similar timeframes, so that’s part of it. But in a general sense, I enjoy reading interconnected narratives, and I like thinking about the webbing. In terms of the contemporary, Yelena Muscovitch’s two books, and Virtuoso, Kalani Pickhart’s I Will Die in A Foreign Land, or Doma Mahmoud’s Cairo Circles. Probably one of the first books that I found really enthralling that does this is Melanie Rae Thon’s Sweet Hearts, and Wiley Cash is great at it too.
I think some of it is, too, part of how social media may have affected my brain. Like a lot of writers, I have plenty of shared connections with people in the community. I have 151 mutual friends with you, and we have met IRL, but some of those people are just faces on a screen to me and probably are to you too.
What’s more interesting is when I find people for whom my first connection was in real life who connected to other humans who I have met in different contexts. If you get enough people in a room at a party, this happens sometimes too; you find out a guy you used to work with went to high school with your childhood friend’s ex-girlfriend or whatever.
It’s sort of statistical in one way, just like if you get enough people in the same room two are bound to have the same birthday, but there’s often something about these intersection points that feel significant in some way. I think I like the idea of some order in what can often feel like randomness, as in, we are not a bunch of accidental people—and see, there’s my proof: that person knows my cousin’s friend!
Workplaces are good at opening up where the wires cross, too, since it exposes us to people we might not otherwise interact with.
JM: That’s an interesting point about social media. I can see the case for the emergence of flash fiction in the last 10-15 years as our attention span and character limits have shrunk, but I never thought about a possible increase in interconnected stories and the growth of online communities. Was there an inciting incident, ie, a particular short story, or chapter in If the Ice Had Held, or before, that for you was like, “wow, I need to keep doing these interconnected pieces?”
WJF: There was no particular flash point, more just the low hum of feeling both disconnected and interconnected. And when I say that, I mean that is how I personally feel.
There have been moments, where I’ve been at events and have realized that the person I am recognizing or who is recognizing me is via social first. That’s not an experience we would have had even a decade ago.
More to your question, though, I think we do still have the capacity for long reads. Novels are some evidence of this. Whatever the discourse, novels and narrative non-fiction do persist as forms.
That said, form is really not something I care about that much. Write what you write, call it what you think it is. It could be a poem, it could be a series of flash, it could be a novel in stories, it could be just regular stories, it could be just a plain novel—I’m sort of like, who cares. The question is, does it read?
I used to be very against genre fiction. It seemed sort of trite and pedestrian. But really, a lot of genre fiction reads very, very well. Literary fiction writers have something to learn there.
Personally, I will always pick up a small press book first over anything. In the US, small press is consistently putting out incredible work. Big presses also are issuing some stunners, but there’s a little more wading through to find those titles.
Actually, I didn’t answer your question at all. I’m just here to say, read really widely. Read things you think you will hate, and allow surprise. Read things you think you will love, and examine the disappointment if it comes.
There’s still nothing I enjoy more than being absorbed in a book. That’s been true since I was a child. That’s probably true for most writers.
JM: Do you have a favorite character or situation in this collection for whom you were rooting, or thought would be an interesting expansion into a novel? For me, it was Melissa. I love a good story about a cult member who breaks the circle. The surprise being, of course (or maybe not), that the Circle feels saner than the office.
WJF: Well, unfortunately, to your point, everything feels saner than the office, at least in my experience.
The “favorite” is a very hard question. The Melissa character is an interesting example because she doesn’t really see the commune at the Circle as cult, just like we don’t relate generally to office culture as cultish even though it certainly can be, via devotion or reverence or fear to the figurehead (aka CEO).
That’s part of the point though, of the whole collection and the title of What If We Were Somewhere Else.
I mean, I’ve thought about that a lot in different circumstances. Not just, what if I were somewhere else, but also, what would I do with it. What am I trying to get out of it. How would being somewhere else be better. Or worse! And how is all that defined, anyway.
Ultimately, I am rooting for all of the characters, even the ones who are being shitty. I think we all have those crap moments in our lives, and then there is someone in the orbit who extends empathy and the moment or the room or the trajectory shifts.
Even though my characters are pretty bad at it, that’s who I want them to be, the empathy extenders. I think it is fair to say that’s also the person I want to be, even though sometimes I’m bad at it too.
But, we try. I like to think that trying counts.
JM: Oh, I totally agree. I try to be a better person through writing¾I think we all do! Being a writer means it’s imperative that you cultivate empathy, understanding, because you’re not continually writing about yourself. You’re writing about people who may be unlikeable or even wonderful but with whom you share no emotional upbringing, like you’re different sexes or races or socioeconomic strata. As writers, we’re always “somewhere else” when creating our fictional world.
Okay, I didn’t actually ask you a question! I guess we’re even.
Here’s one: You’ve written a couple of great articles about the business side of writing that have grown from your experience with small presses: “Five Questions to Ask Before Signing with a Small Press” at Catapult and “Reconciling Book Sales as a Debut Author” at Read Her Like an Open Book. What If We Were Somewhere Else is your fourth book. Do you think, now that you know more about the workings of the independent press world, that it’s gotten easier or you’ve gotten better at it¾is there a formula to be moderately successful, is it still luck, or a mixture of both?
WJF: I like that phrase, of not sharing an emotional upbringing. What good writers do so well is bring readers into their own world—I’m thinking about books I’ve read recently like Omar Sharif, Jr.’s A Tale of Two Omars and the reissue of Amy Koppelman’s A Mouthful of Air. The Sharif is memoir and the Koppelman is fiction, but in both of these, I share little of the writers’ experiences.
But in both, I was fully absorbed in the narrative. Super different books. Both compelling.
That’s a really interesting question about being successful in the small press world. Publishing is always hard, whether it is Big 5 (I guess Big 4 now) or micro and all of it in between. I will say, I have been lucky to have pubbed with small presses who do things correctly, like pay royalties.
I think I’ve gotten better at it, though. No matter the size of your press, unless you are a lead author on a biggie, and even then, there’s a lot of lift that is left up to us as authors. When my first book came out, it’s not like I thought I was going to become a millionaire or something, but I did think it would sell a little more than it did. My next book sold better, even though it was on an even smaller press, but I also knew more about what I had to do for the book.
As writers we have to ask ourselves what we want. There’s as much room in the ecosystem for a chapbook as there is for a bestseller.
That’s one of the things I love about SFWP—the list includes writers like me but also fantasy, horror, speculative, memoir, historical reprints. So when I ask myself what I want out of publishing, I do want a press who is going to be partner in the business side of writing.
There’s this weird tension— pressure in Big 4.5 to earn out, and then there’s pressure in small press to not care about money.
Ultimately, I just want to have space to write and I am grateful to the publishers who have seen my work to print. Some of it is luck, some of it is timing, and a lot of it is really being into hustling for your own work. That’s not a fun answer, but that’s what I’ve learned. And, find a partners in publishers who want to support you.
JM: So true. And yet we keep coming back for more! Speaking of which, what are you working on now?
WJF: Right now, I am working on two novels, neither of which I have a strong sense of where they are going. But! That’s also how it goes in the writing life. You just try to keep going.
Jen Michalski is the author of three novels, The Tide King and Summer She Was Under Water (both Black Lawrence Press) and You’ll Be Fine (NineStar Press), a couplet of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books), and three collections of fiction. She’s also the editor in chief of jmww.