Wendy J. Fox’s new collection What If We Were Somewhere Else (after If the Ice Had Held) imagines an office where characters, while never quite knowing each other, have intricate and fascinating backstories and lives outside of work. From a chronic stair-walker who was raised on a commune that shunned modern medicine to the office lovebirds to a literal trip to the moon and back, What If We Were Somewhere Else makes us ask not only about the people in the stories, but all the people around us whose lives we may or may not know. Everyone has a story, and rarely have they been so vividly seen, so tenderly and kindly told as when Wendy J. Fox tells them in her new book. We spoke via email at the end of December, and Wendy’s answers illuminate her writing process, how reviewers have spoken about some of her most creative choices, and more.
Alex DiFrancesco: We’ve talked a bit in the past about cohesiveness and collections of fiction and nonfiction. What inspired you to write interconnected stories all focused on an office and its workers?
Wendy J. Fox: Like a lot of writers, my debut was truly a collection—meaning, stories that I had written over a period of a decade and compiled into a (just barely!) book-length manuscript. When I was doing events for that book (The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories, Press 53, 2014), I struggled so hard to figure out what to read. Because so much of it was so many years old, I just kept feeling like, even though it was fiction, Oh. I remembered when I felt like that. Oh. I remember when I cared about that.
But! That’s also just kind of how it goes, and I stand by those stories. Still, I did set out to write What If We Were Somewhere Else as a linked collection. I didn’t know it was going to be stories about an office and workers when I began, but, because I was a worker in an office, that’s how it started to shape. Mostly, I was interested in being more intentional about a short story collection, because frankly, I love short story collections and how they range from very disparate to very connected. I knew the narrative was not a novel, so ideas of form were a guide there.
AD: “Pivot, Table” may have been one of my favorites, because of how precisely it skewers writers. Was this fun for you to write, as well? A lot of writers write characters who are writers so seriously. You seemed to be having a very good time with this one. I’m also curious if you or any other writers you know made their way in here?
WF: I was really helped by the editors at Four Way Review, who helped sharpen the story before they published it. So often, as writers, we are meant to have “camera-ready” (if that’s even a term people use anymore) work. Shout out forever to editors. Like how crocodiles have the plover bird who hang out in their teeth but don’t get crunched; editors and writers should be symbiotic.
To your question, yes, it was fun to write. In any instance where this story is making fun of writers taking themselves so damn seriously, that’s making fun of myself and the feelings I have sometimes of, “Goddammit! I’m an artist!”
I’ve been to plenty of open mic nights (which is referenced in this story) where it would be fairly easy to level some criticism at the participants. The other side of that coin is, I’ve never had the courage to do an open mic. In “Pivot, Table” I’m trying to acknowledge that sometimes, even when we really care about it, the work we are doing can be pretty bad. I’m also trying to surface that even if it’s crummy, it’s absolutely, without question, and impervious to criticism, worth doing. What’s the other choice? Rolling over for late-stage capitalism?
AD: There are so many pleasant surprises in this book that revolve around characters’ inability to know each other—I’m thinking here of when we find out that Melissa, who is known up until her story as a chronic stair-walker, reveals she grew up in a commune. Did characters reveal themselves to you as you wrote, or did you have a clear idea of them all from the beginning and based other characters’ thoughts about them on misconception sof who you knew them to really be?
WF: I love that, the “inability to know each other.” Super accurate. Thank you.
Generally, I write to discover and often don’t have a character or plotline that I’m specifically writing to, at least in the beginning of a project. I have an idea, sometimes, though really what I’m the most interested in is tension.
As a project grows and the characters become more clear, I think it’s more about exploring their contradictions or digging into what makes them who they are.
I cut out what’s close to an equal number of pages as what makes up the final pages of this book. I don’t think that’s particularly unusual. Those cut pages where mostly about me trying to write through why X character would do Y thing; why this A thing would make this B character respond in the way they do.
AD: Was there an impulse for you to make a large contrast between office life and regular life? To highlight the mundanity of the everyday work environment with all the intrigue these characters go through? I’m thinking of the two stories with spur-of-the-moment marriages that upend the characters’ lives—and how different the scenes when they’re all at their desks are from these moments—and the line “We hide from our marriages inside of work, or we hide from our work inside of our marriages.”
WF: I think about that a lot, certainly. I spent 15 years in corporate marketing—and I met a lot of awesome people, people who are still true friends today, shit, I married one of them—but dang, there is this addiction to the culture of busyness, the addiction to being on all the time. It’s not that different than home life; in both spaces we often want to feel needed.
It comes down to a larger question that I grapple with all the time: what’s my place here? What am I doing? Who, in fact, cares one way or the other?
We try to make meaning…with varying degrees of success.
The contrast of work life and home life is about exploring tension, and it’s also about asking questions.
AD: To ask a question about structure—what made you decide to split these stories in two, and place them in separate halves of the book? Or, do you consider them two separate stories about each character? And tell me about your choice to repeat some phrases and information at the beginning of each character’s second story to reorient the reader?
WF: I had written the first half of the book, and the stories in the published version basically appear in that order.
For the second half—and I have to say, you are the first person who has specifically called out how there is repetition of the openings of the stories in the second half—I wanted to create recognition for the reader, because it’s not a novel and the stories are not chapters. Reorienting, as you say, is exactly right.
In fact, in the editing process, shout out again to editors (the editor for this book is SFWP’s wonderful Nicole Schmidt), I kept asking “BUT DOES THIS OPENING FEEL LIKE A RETREAD” and she was a bit, hey, calm down, you’re grounding the reader, it’s cool.
In the second half, all of the characters have gone through something, and sometimes they learn from it, and sometimes they don’t. I split it up because I was thinking a lot about how much we change over time. I was also thinking about how much we don’t change. People say time heals. Maybe. Mostly, I think time, and the passage of it, is weird.
AD: To ask a question about process—how many drafts did this book take you? Are you the sort of writer who gets down the bones and fills in the rest in subsequent drafts, or overwrite and then go back and edit things out?
WF: I wrote the first story in this collection in 2015. I do a little of both—like I was saying about backstory, I tend to overwrite and need to clip it, but then again I find myself needing to fill out plot details so the action tracks.
Generally, while I know this is not your question, I just don’t really go in for writing advice. Process is super different for everyone, including me. There were times that I was very much in the camp of The Daily Practice Is The Thing—when I had a high-level tech job, I wrote my novel If The Ice Had Held 150 words a day, over a year. That’s a full 55K word draft, and also some seriously fragmented shit. It took me three years to revise it.
These days, I’m much more of a binge writer. However, no matter what I’m working on, it’s at least six or seven drafts. Revision is definitely my friend.
AD: A lot of the stories here seem to hinge on small (or sometimes large) acts of kindness. There’s Heather’s lover washing her hair and watering her plants when she’s injured. There’s Laird driving to pick up his addicted childhood best friend and bring him home. There’s Michael’s offer to drive Sabine to her mom’s house when she leaves her boyfriend. It feels, after a while, like one of the most intentional choices of narrative is to focus on these kindnesses. Was this something you worked on a lot? Why did you make this choice instead of increasing drama with possibly more negative places for the narrative to hang on? What does the last story ending on a lack of kindness mean in this landscape?
WF: Yes, the focus on kindness, like making a multi-state drive to try and help a friend in active addiction, was very intentional. There are so many times in life where people undertake what might be objectively bonkers action in order to help the people we love. I asked myself, would I travel from Denver to Salt Lake City to help a friend? Would I drive a friend from a boyfriend’s house to her mother’s? Of course. Part of what is happening here is that often we, as people, absolutely want to say yes when someone we care about is in need, but it’s not always the best decision for our own lives and our own mental health. Sometimes we do actually have to say no against our empathetic impulses. In this way, my characters are a bit naïve.
The last story ending on a lack of kindness had to do with that character (Kate) not taking care of herself. Many of the other people/characters have come to the realization that they are no one without their friends and families. Kate isn’t quite there. She’s still looped into American individualism, possibly her own ideas about exceptionalism. She’s totally wrong about it. She’s pissed at her ex, and she’s trying to get another job. She doesn’t understand yet, in the way that the other characters do, that jobs never love you back.
AD: Most of this book is based in realism, but towards the end we get an entirely speculative story based in a future moon colony. Did that feel like a natural choice at this point, to shake up the genre and structure of the stories? How did you come to this choice?
WF: I did the math on this story about a hundred times to try and understand if I was being unreasonable. It’s not set so far in the future, ten years. I’m in my early forties. So, a decade from now?
The story is divergent in style for sure, and some reviewers have not been into it. I just couldn’t shake the question—in 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 years from now, how will we live? How can we live?
I am very concerned that this story in a few years may read as realism. Today, I heard a segment on NPR about a Phoenix water engineer who started designing a pipeline in 2015 to mitigate against the drying up of the Colorado River. The story was about how that seemed like folly when he started it, because, oh no, the Colorado which supplies many Western states with water, would never run dry, but just barely half a decade later, that pipeline is ultra-necessary. So, good job to that dude, for having some foresight. Bad job for many of the rest of us who just want to turn on the tap and have water come out and not think about it. Or, not have rising seas turn farmland into salt marshes, on the flip side there.
I wrote the story with the same question as all of the second half stories: what’s next for this person?
There is no title story to the collection, but the cover references the moon story. Sort of the ultimate what if we were somewhere else. Just a smidge of a fast-forward.
AD: The last question here, because the interview column title comes from a song, is related to a lyric of that song which goes, “Prolix, prolix, nothing a pair of scissors can’t fix.” The question is, if you had to cut one thing, large or small, from this book, what would it be?
WF: Well, Nick Cave is right about that and the whole idea of prolix and the lengthy. I already cut a lot, but if I had to pare this book down to the absolute bone, I would cut out anything that isn’t in service of how to understand what love means. I’d keep all the parts that address how love is very individual, but I don’t think that individual love or caring is at all excessive. I think it’s what we need to have to live.
Wendy J. Fox is the author of four books of fiction. Her novel If the Ice Had Held was named a top book by Buzzfeed, High Country News, and LitHub (audio). She has been a finalist for the Colorado Book Award twice. A frequent contributor to national publications, she has written for Self, Business Insider, Ms. Magazine, Buzzfeed News and others. She has also written for literary sites including The Millions, The Rumpus, and Electric Literature.
Alex DiFrancesco is the author of Psychopomps, All City, and Transmutation. They live in Cleveland, Ohio.
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