Wendy J. Fox is the author of four books, including her latest book of linked short stories, What If We Were Somewhere Else. Her novel If the Ice Had Held and her debut collection, The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories, were both finalists for the Colorado Book Award.
Wendy’s fiction is marked by an unrelenting austerity. Her characters struggle through bitter winds of an indifferent material world, searching, mostly unsuccessfully, for some measure of safety or solace. Moments of personal insight or human tenderness are rare, and when these moments do arrive, they are just as often met with suspicion or incredulity. As she remarks, “There is a lot of hardness in the world,” before adding the question, “but where can we make things easier for people?”
The characters who populate her new collection, What If We Were Somewhere Else, are all connected by a small corporate office. They’ve all worked there at one time or another, and they each share in the social deprivations and general insecurities that corporate life has to offer. In fact, most of them lose their jobs in a series of layoffs, so perhaps it would be more accurate to state that they are all disconnected by the office. The pervading theme for this ensemble cast is one of isolation and unceasing restlessness. Everyone dreams of being somewhere else, but where exactly is not an easy question to answer.
Fox allows these characters to exist in a realm of pathos we rarely see depicted in mainstream culture: they live in the crushing numbness of massive unacknowledged personal and collective grief. If we’re going to try to make things easier for people, Fox seems to imply, we’re going to have to start by being honest about the world in which their lives are taking place.
I’ve known Wendy Fox my entire life, and even a little longer than that. Our mothers were pregnant with us at the same time, living on the hillsides of Island Mountain above Tonasket in the Okanogan Highlands of rural Washington state. This interview, conducted over a three-hour Zoom call, is a small fragment of a lifelong conversation that has been going on for nearly four decades. It has been edited for length and clarity.
The Rumpus: I’m curious how your experience of this book has changed over the entire course of its creation, and especially now, where it’s going to be landing.
Wendy J. Fox: I wasn’t sure at first that it would work as a linked collection. That happened as I went through the process, even though I did, even in the beginning, want it to be something that was a cohesive work. I had an idea that it could be different for me to write stories in this way. I would read short stories that worked well as a narrative arc, and I would think, Oh wow, this isn’t a collection collection, meaning collected through disparate time and space. More like someone sat down and threaded these stories together. My first book was a collection collection. It was contemporary to what I was doing then when it came out seven years ago, but also included things from, literally, the nineties. Writing What If We Were Somewhere Else helped me think about stories in a new way.
It’s always an interesting thing with any book because your relationship changes to it over time. At first, you get really excited to have it done, and then you go through a period of editing it, and then it kind of ruminates and it’s working its way through the publishing channels, and publishing is very different than writing.
Then, for me, almost invariably there’s the freak-out moment where I realize, I’ve turned it in, I have a contract, it’s coming out, it has a date. Then you move past developmental edits or copy edits and into proofreading, and it’s like, I can’t really change anything. Then you have that truly terrifying feeling of, Oh my gosh, what if nobody reads it? and also, Oh my God, what if they do read it?
Rumpus: There are all these interesting reverbs and reflections in the book. The office is really the hub that links all of these people together, though nothing really takes place there, actually. It’s just there to be broken apart. In this accidental way it mirrors the way in which nobody’s going into the office anymore these days. Here’s this story of these people who are really struggling to negotiate some sort of isolation, and most of them are toggling between failed romance or loneliness, a workplace that they’ve either just left or they’re going to leave, or a home life that they might have to leave. It’s like everybody’s in this precarious non-locale.
Fox: I appreciate that you noticed how much doesn’t take place in the office even though much of the book is predicated on that connection. I definitely started to think about space and spaceless-ness a lot as I was writing it, and that’s part of where the title comes from, what you just touched on. So, there’s this linkage of, yes, they all have worked in the same office building at the same company at one point or the other, and yes, the precarity of work, and the precarity of home life. That’s where the idea comes from, this title “What if we were somewhere else?” It started to feel to me, that when you’re in the office, you think, Oh, I should be doing something else, thinking of the domestic. Then, when you’re at home, you think, Oh, I should be doing something else, thinking of commerce. I don’t feel like people are ever really clear on what either really is, but it’s part of that feeling of not knowing what you want but maybe feeling that you want something different than your current life.
That’s part of the reason that there is a large absence of social media in the book, because that is a feeling that social media often engenders in people, right? It becomes another place we can quote unquote “go” or “do,” but it actually exacerbates that feeling of what if I were doing something else with my time, which is in the best light a question about how is one engaging with meaning and in the worst iteration, shit, just wasting time over here.
I started the first story that became the book, which is actually the first chronological story in the book, in 2015. So between then and now, I changed, my job changed, the world changed.
Rumpus: My sense is that we make art objects and we create art, we create literature so that we have something to cast our senses into and cast our talking into and onto and through. What’s that process, where you’re worried that no one will read it, and then at the same time worried about what might happen if they do?
Fox: For me, oftentimes I’ll start writing something as a way of processing—processing anger, processing grief, processing joy—and I want to engage in the creation of art, in whatever way that makes sense, and I personally think that can be defined extremely broadly. Still, I want it to resonate with people when they’re reading it. I don’t necessarily write for other people, but when the book is out there in the world, it is a commodity of a type, and because readers have offered you their time to engage with your work, you want it to land.
It’s not going to land with every single reader or reviewer and nothing is universally loved. That’s obvious, and also fine. I do still get wrapped up in a feeling like, It was meaningful for me to write this and I hope that it’s meaningful for other people to read it. It’s such a profound experience for me when I read something and I’m super inspired by it. It feels like a gift and it feels really personal. And so, you want to be able to do that for other people, and you never know if that’s going to happen or not.
Rumpus: It doesn’t feel like you’re going out of your way to try to make characters achieve some insight and transform themselves—they’re not on self-improvement trips, they’re not on yoga excursions. These feel like people who are really suffering and in pretty severe states of isolation.
Fox: If you look at the covers of women’s magazines, it’s about having better hair and makeup, and here’s how you can walk off the weight. There’s so much cultural emphasis on the idea of transformation. Or you go through a really hard thing, and then you come out on the other side just a lot stronger, and I feel like maybe sometimes that does happen, but oftentimes we’re either somewhat static or the moment moves on.
I think it’s actually okay to not experience transformation. It’s okay to sit with your anger. It’s okay to lament the loss of a friendship and not move on. Or, move on! It’s okay to be pissed about things that you can’t control. And I think that also, in a lot of fiction, the traditional structure is about the moment where a character has insight or there is that transformational moment, and oftentimes I don’t feel like that’s super reflective of how our lives go.
It is okay to be pissed. It is okay to not know what to do with your feelings. It is okay to not compartmentalize. It’s okay to not transform. Maybe there’s no denouement. It is okay to not be meme-able, distilling all of your life’s experiences into this one moment that’s accessible to anyone.
Rumpus: I think that you did resist that impulse in this collection. Do you feel like you want to become even more obstinate or more expressive of that anger? I feel like these characters are pissed off about a culture that is telling them that they ought to be having more fun or that they ought to change or that they ought to do something different, and the book as a whole seems to be more like a portrait of a mindset that’s endemic in our culture. Especially people who work in a corporate office setting. It’s like everybody’s kind of in this fuzz, in this fog of not knowing how to get to where, if they even know where they want to go.
Fox: I would say that in a lot of offices, there definitely is this culture of toxic positivity, where it’s not okay to express that you’re upset about something; one should always smile, especially if one is female. I hadn’t thought about it before in this way specifically before you bought it up, but I think a lot of the lack of dialogue is really the feeling of the characters not knowing how to name how they’re feeling.
Rumpus: There’s a kind of claustrophobia in your stories because there’s an inside-out quality to your characters’ interiority, which you see in the external details. A lot of the experience of the collection was feeling the animal part of humans who have been reduced in their humanity, in so far as our humanity is, in large part, our ability to feel and communicate our feelings and to receive the expressed feelings of others.
Fox: I don’t really have a way of knowing this, but it is my belief that most people have a pretty rich interior life. I think some people spend more time with it than others, and some people maybe prioritize it in ways that other people don’t, but I think that a lot of times people don’t give it weight or pay it attention when it lacks transformation. And part of my general point is that transformation is not a requirement. It can be enough to just exist.
Rumpus: It makes me think of Michel Houellebecq in his Paris Review interview. I think the interviewer brings up the negative way in which people have reacted to his depictions of sex, and he says, “Look, it’s not like I’m the first person depicting sex.”
Rumpus: Quoting from Houellebecq “It’s just, I seem to be the first one who’s depicted it in a way that doesn’t glorify it and make it beautiful. I show people having sex that’s really ugly and realistic and unglamorous and people are like really upset about that.” I think that in our culture, we’re so polarized, and we demand either some sort of radiant transformation and insight on the one side of the spectrum, or degradation and some kind of transformation on the other side, too. I’m trying to gather whether or not this seems accurate for you. I mean, there’s Kale [a secondary character, and the childhood best friend of Laird, the main character in the stories “The Old Country” and “Wish in the Other”] who has an addiction, he’s strung out, but he’s sort of an outlier in the book I would say. He’s not a main character really.
Fox: No, and we don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen to him, whether he gets clean, or how his life turns out. But his buddy, Laird, does go pick him up and drive a significant distance to be there for a friend who has not been there for him at all. And I think that that’s some of it too, that sometimes the really beautiful moments in life, like when someone shows up for you, even if you maybe don’t deserve them showing up for you, are often couched in something that is really kind of terrible, right? The kid’s completely strung out, isn’t sure what to do, isn’t sure where to go, so he calls his high school friend who he’s blown off for some time and his friend shows up. I do think that those moments in life are gorgeous, but they can be obscured by the larger reality of what’s happening, the bigger context of it.
Rumpus: How hard was it to essentially eliminate social media or any kind of consideration of it from this book?
Fox: Internet, social media, cell phones—I feel like a lot of writers make these choices, because it’s pretty hard to do it well, and it creates this kind of like… I don’t know, maybe it’s a little bit like going to the bathroom. Like, do I need to say, “And then she checked Facebook?”
Rumpus: It’s this paradox that is beyond a cliché at this point, the way in which we’re staying connected to some kind of social media or some kind of media all the time, but that connection is actually increasing our sense of isolation. In this collection we’ve established that there’s not really much of an internet or a social media presence, but there’s also not much of a socioeconomic, political climate to speak of.
Fox: When I was writing it, I was thinking a lot about undecided voters. Even before writing What If I was always wondering, Who the fuck are those people, who are the undecided voters? Who are these people who don’t know their own minds?
It really kind of flips me out, but I think a lot of the characters in this book are the undecided voters. They don’t know, they’re not operating with what you might call a moral compass—and I’m defining that extremely broadly. They’re not operating with a vision of what they believe is right, they’re operating inside of themselves, but often have less of an interface with the external world.
Rumpus: Does it feel like this collection is a reclamation for you from your corporate experience? Or a revenge on that culture?
Fox: I don’t think I would say reclamation or revenge. Maybe something more like surfacing, like trying to surface what often just feels like a beatdown all the time, and for what? And we know for what, on the surface: your paycheck. So you can pay your rent and buy your groceries and do all of those things, but I often wondered, Does it have to be this hard? I think maybe just as people, it takes time for us to find our center and it takes time for us to understand that we actually, if we’re surrounding ourselves with other humans who we can relate to and get real with, you can tell people what you actually think, you can have those challenging and crunchy conversations with them. But oftentimes how work and just the larger culture is designed, we’re not really set up in that way. Even in just like the classic, “Oh, how are you doing?” and “Oh, I’m fine.” “Oh, just fine?” Because I’m always like, is that not good enough? Even though, no, “Fine” is not good enough! Fine is not the goal.
Rumpus: I think we’re struggling right now, both individually and collectively to formulate visions that reconcile that individual to the collective in a way that is healthy, sustainable, mutually beneficial, honest, or authentic. I think that gets back to what I really want to know: What is it that we’re wanting evoked in us?
Fox: You want to create, you want to build a door that the reader can open, and when you start a book you don’t know where that door opens to. It could be a portal to a different world, it could be a staircase into the depths of something that resonates with your own psychosis. It could be something transformational, or not, like we were talking about before. I think that’s a lot of where the joy of books comes from: When you open it up, you don’t know where you’re going, and that’s never changed for me. I’ve always been a reader first. I’m definitely a writer second.
Photograph of Wendy J. Fox by Bethan Brome.