The Rumpus Book Club chats with Wendy J. Fox about her new story collection, What If We Were Somewhere Else (Santa Fe Writers Project, November 2021), how she approached writing a book of linked stories, learning not to focus on creative output, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Gene Kwak, Christopher Gonzalez, Gabrielle Civil, Eva Jurczyk, Suzanne Roberts, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to our Book Club chat with Wendy J. Fox about her new story collection, What If We Were Somewhere Else!
Wendy J. Fox: Thank you, Marisa! I’m excited to be here!
Marisa: I’m excited to discuss the book! Can you start by telling us a little about how it came to be? Did you set out to write a linked story collection, or did that form come later?
Wendy J. Fox: I started writing the collection in 2015, and yes, I did set out to write a linked story collection. I have another book of stories that is very much collected stories, meaning, a bunch of random stories I had written over different periods in my life, but for What If We Were Somewhere Else, I wanted to explore a “collection” as something intentional.
And, I didn’t know how that was going to go, but as I was doing it, one of the things I loved was that it felt like I was operating inside of a kind of structure, and that was helpful to me.
Marisa: Are there any other linked collections, in particular, that you looked toward as guides while or just ahead of working on the project?
Wendy J. Fox: Not specifically in advance, but I am personally drawn to certain types of interconnected narratives. Recent books, like Yelena Moskovich’s A Door Behind a Door or Cairo Circles by Doma Mahmoud are examples, but I wasn’t reading those until later.
I think there was something where I felt like I wanted more cohesion in the characters, but I didn’t feel like the stories of the individuals were a novel.
Marisa: I was just going to ask how does the linked collection feel/work differently to your mind than the novel. Did your writing process differ much for What If We Were Somewhere Else than for your last book, a novel (If the Ice Had Held)?
Wendy J. Fox: It did. For If the Ice Had Held, when I was writing it, I was working a very demanding day job and I was struggling with fitting in writing time, so I had this idea that if you take the average definition for book-length at 55,000 or so words (which is still fairly short) and divide that by 365 days, at 150 words a day over a year, you get a full draft.
And that is very much how I did it. As you can imagine, that was an extremely fragmented draft. It took me three years to revise it, so most of the work for If the Ice Had Held was revision.
For What If We Were Somewhere Else, I would try to draft out a whole story at a time, and even though there was still a ton of revision, it was a more sustained practice.
Alysia Sawchyn: When I was reading this, I had a strong flashback to my two months (emotionally, decades) of working at the DOT.
Wendy J. Fox: Thank you, Alysia … and sorry?
Alysia Sawchyn: Hah! It was the connectedness of it. That sense of how you can spend SO MUCH TIME with people and have no idea what’s going on.
Wendy J. Fox: Totally.
Alysia Sawchyn: That’s one of the things I love about books with multiple points of view, how they capture the incongruity of imaginations.
Did you have a “favorite” character, or was there anything different you did to get into the minds/voices of each?
Wendy J. Fox: I don’t think I have a favorite character, but it was more—something I think about a lot, is that you know, most of us work a job of some sort or another, and, to your point, we spend SO MUCH time together, with these folks who we might not have chosen to be our friends or to sit next to, like ever, but they are in our orbit.
I kept thinking, well these people (my coworkers) are humans with lives and families and problems and hearts, like even if someone in accounting in rubbing me the wrong way—like, maybe I should ask myself what’s happening in their world instead of being so absorbed in my own.
Alysia Sawchyn: [whispers] Heather is my favorite.
Marisa: Who was hardest to get on the page? Is there a character in the collection you had more trouble understanding?
Wendy J. Fox: The hardest characters for me were the male characters. In one of the stories (“The Old Country”), when it was on submission, more than three editors said, hey, good story, but that is not how teenaged boys talk.
Alysia Sawchyn: HAH.
Wendy J. Fox: So, I had to listen to that. I spent a lot of time reading the dialogue out loud to people in my life who had been teenaged boys at one point in their life. I was ultimately really happy about that. You know, there’s the thing about writing being solitary, but it really is not.
Also, thank you FOREVER to editors,
Marisa: Did you write these stories in the order we see them in now, or did you worry about that afterward, in revision?
Wendy J. Fox: I wrote them mostly in the order you see now. There are two stories for each character with the exception of Kate (who opens, has a middle story, and then closes)—so when I had the batch of the first stories, I wrote the second half of the book.
But for me, that was something I had to push myself to do. I would think, ugh, this is not working, just move on. I write out of order all of the time, and I wanted to try and do it differently than what my usual tendency is.
Alysia Sawchyn: Oh, interesting!
Wendy J. Fox: Which is something I have been thinking about a lot recently…. I get in writing ruts. Sometimes a structural change helps me.
Alysia Sawchyn: Yes, I have to trick myself into writing.
Wendy J. Fox: Yes. I also think a lot about how even thinking about writing is writing, in a way. How reading is in service of the practice. I have had to re-train myself to not think about output.
I love what the poet Amanda Gorman says about output, which is, to paraphrase, if that’s the only goal (production), you’ve put art in a capitalist framework. I want to write, I want to finish things, but I also want to give myself space to read, and just noodle on things, listen to podcasts, go for a walk.
Managing time can be super hard. It calls for some gentleness with ourselves, I think.
Marisa: Especially now, during the pandemic. I feel like I’ve still not gotten a handle on time again, even two years in.
Wendy J. Fox: 100000000%
Marisa: What’s it like to publish a book right now, compared to the books you’d put out in the before-times? Will you be doing in-person and virtual events?
Wendy J. Fox: I am thrilled about this book coming out, and it launches on November 1, but I don’t have a launch event. Usually I’m very on top of that kind of thing. Not this year. It’s just so hard to know what to do.
But that said, I am slowly starting to set some things up. It’s so different. For my last novel, I started official promotion at AWP in March in Tampa. The book came out in May 2019, and I did my last book event in February of 2020, right before everything shut down.
I was hustling for it, and it was really fun to do multiple events each month and hang out with other writers, but this time—I just don’t know.
Alysia Sawchyn: Amen to that. Mine came out in June 2020 and phewwwwwww.
Wendy J. Fox: Actually, I lobbied the publisher to delay the book because I was a little burnt out, but also, as COVID started to happen, I thought, eh, give it a year. It will be better.
Well…. it’s different.
Alysia Sawchyn: HAH. It sure is. I feel like we’re moving back into that in-between space, where things are opening back up but…
Wendy J. Fox: I want to say one thing for anyone reading this who has a book coming out: I really, really, really encourage you—whether it is virtual or in-person—to team up with other writers for your events. It changes the texture.
When I was on tour for If the Ice Had Held, I had zero solo events. What that meant was instead of me sweating at a podium, I was hanging out with smart people talking about things we care about in public, and it was still exhausting, but it was also energizing.
Alysia Sawchyn: Conversations > monologues.
Wendy J. Fox: And, it takes off the pressure of performance.
Alysia Sawchyn: Absolutely.
Can I ask about the progression of the book? Or rather, about the motifs of climate change, and their radical progression.
Wendy J. Fox: Oh, yes.
Alysia Sawchyn: I’m always curious as to whether these elements are things that appear in drafting and are then polished or whether a writer starts out with them in mind. Also—the leap!
Wendy J. Fox: So, as I said above, I started writing this in 2015. Of course, climate change was happening six years ago! It has been happening for a long time. But it feels like it has really started to be made very very evident in recent years. We talk about it differently now, too. We don’t say something is a weird weather event; it’s extreme weather because of climate change. We name it now in a way we didn’t even half a decade ago.
So, those later stories in the book, I was influenced by that, and how our collective relationship to this collective problem is changing. To answer your question, no. It didn’t start that way.
The story that the Rumpus published, “The Human,” is the most climate-change-y one in the book, and I had to keep checking the math on it, like, this feels too far in the future, and then I think about how different the world was for me twenty years ago. What’s it going to be in another twenty years? Maybe there will be a moon colony.
Alysia Sawchyn: Yeah, it’s funny how time changes everything. Ah, I have goosebumps now. Moon colony!
Wendy J. Fox: I don’t want to go!
Alysia Sawchyn: I would never. Have you watched The Expanse (f*ck Amazon but ….)? I screamed the whole way through. I would not do well in space. I also really enjoyed the contrast—the commune.
Wendy J. Fox: I haven’t seen it!
Alysia Sawchyn: Almost like the two extreme possibilities for the future after capitalism—outer space or the deep woods
Wendy J. Fox: Right. Do you double down and get off the grid, or do you put your faith in technology and hop on a rocket? Hard choices either way.
Marisa: Wendy, who are your literary influences, artistic influences, musical influences, etc.? What kind of art do you turn to shake new ideas loose?
Wendy J. Fox: Always a tough question because it changes over time, of course—but the kind of art I turn to rattle things is the kind of stuff I don’t think I could ever do.
Marisa: Same! For me, it’s music. I have no musical talent at all. (I’ve tried.) See also: visual art.
Wendy J. Fox: For example, I there’s an incredible podcast called Stolen by the investigative journalist Connie Walker that is an incredible story of a missing Indigenous woman—the opening to it has to be some of the best narrative journalism that ever existed.
And, you know, I use this book as an example all the time, The Overstory by Richard Powers—mixed reviews from people, but when I read it, I was like, how did you write this? Then I read an article in the Guardian and learned that he first read 127 books about trees. I really like trees and I love to read, but I don’t think I could read that many books about trees.
I also have zero visual artistic talent. When I used to teach, I would try to draw things on the board, and my students would be like, please don’t. Just say it with words.
Marisa: We are almost out of time, and I always like to close by asking what you’re reading now. And/or, any forthcoming books you’re especially excited for?
Wendy J. Fox: I recently read Jen Michalski’s You’ll Be Fine, and it’s great. Alexis Orgera’s Head Case. J.T. Hill’s Blind Man’s Bluff… there’s so much good writing out there. What I just started is My Year of Rest and Relaxation which I didn’t get to when it was hot, but loving it so far.
Alysia Sawchyn: Oh, yes!
Marisa: There is SO much good writing out right now, yes. My book piles are towering.
Wendy J. Fox: One thing that has changed for me in the last years is really trying to read very, very widely—and I’m loving that. It’s a gift to oneself.
Marisa: Wendy, thank you so much for your time this afternoon discussing What If We Were Somewhere Else! So glad to have featured this collection in the Book Club.
Wendy J. Fox: Thank you, and thank for all The Rumpus does for writers and readers and thinkers!
Alysia Sawchyn: Thank youuuuuuuu.
Marisa: Thank you both for your thoughtful questions and answers, too, and have a lovely rest of the weekend!
Photograph of Wendy J. Fox by Bethan Brome.