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Wendy J. Fox is the author of four books of fiction, including the novel ”If the Ice Had Held” and the recent short-story collection ”What If We Were Somewhere Else,” which won the Colorado Book Award for literary fiction. She has written for The Rumpus, Buzzfeed, Self, Business Insider, and Ms., and her work has appeared in literary magazines including Washington Square, Euphony, and Painted Bride Quarterly. More at www.wendyjfox.com.
SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
Wendy J. Fox: I began writing this book in 2015, while I was working at a tech company in Denver. The book is not about that company specifically, it’s more generalized experiences of what it means to hold a particular kind of job in a contemporary setting.
It’s worth saying, too, that this is a pre-COVID experience. There is a lot in the book that has to do with the kind of grind of going into an office every day. Now, it might feel more like a memory than a close experience to some white-collar workers.
I’ve written about work before, and the particular inspiration here was thinking about the connections we sometimes build with coworkers. Or, if not connection, at least the intersection that happens with people who begin as complete strangers.
As companies figure out what the future of the office is, I think more people are coming to the same conclusion as me: The idea of the office is kind of bizarre.
SunLit: Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
Fox: The excerpt, “Tornado Watch,” is one of three stories in this linked collection that follows a character named Kate. Kate’s life is completely falling apart around her, and the office is at least some sort of tether to reality for her. It’s also where she met the husband who is divorcing her. He doesn’t work there anymore.
I selected it because this story feels emblematic to me of the absolute mess we sometimes make of our lives. It’s a mess, though, which is often hidden. I think about, for example: People who know me personally are aware I keep a tidy house, on the surface. But, my kitchen drawers, my bedroom closet, the cabinets in my home office; these are not tidy at all. If I can’t see the disarray, I don’t think about it too much, I just close the pantry door and move on. Kate is operating like this, but in a much more consequential way than having three half-used bags of lentils.
SunLit: Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write?
Fox: I’m basically never sitting down to write a book. I sit down to work on something—something—and I rarely know what it is. When I began “What If We Were Somewhere Else,” I thought I was writing one single story about a troubling HVAC unit in an office.
Common enough experience.
In the opening story in the collection, which was in fact the first story I wrote, there is a list of names of people who have been fired from their jobs. I have also been fired from jobs. I started wondering about the stories of those folks, and if I could make them be more than just names.
SunLit: Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?
Fox: I largely write realism-based literary fiction. In this collection, there are stories from different periods in the characters’ lives. In writing a character who was young when the stories opened but who would be middle-aged as the book progresses, I realized the timeline located him chronologically beyond our present day. He ends up being a moon colonist.
I had to ask, what is life going to be like in 2031? We live in a time of accelerating change. To be sure, 2031 is not so far off. Yet, even in the past year I feel like I have seen things I never thought would happen, from ecological disaster in Louisville, to riots in our nation’s capital, to women’s rights being rolled back.
What seemed a bit fantastical when I initially wrote that story (called “The Human”) seems less of a stretch in July, 2022.
SunLit: What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
Fox: Frankly, every book has its own challenges. One challenge I had was not wanting to have a COVID book. The publisher delayed the release by a year so I wouldn’t have a COVID book, but I still had a COVID book.
I certainly cannot speak for every writer, but for me, the personal challenge I have is going through a deep period of anxiety before a book comes out. Often, final edits are turned in as far as a year in advance of publication. So you have a lot of time to worry that something is not quite right!
“What If We Were Somewhere Else”
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It is pins and needles as the first reviews come back.
SunLit: Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers?
Fox: The most consistent response when I talk to readers is they share their own office experiences with annoying coworkers and terrible bosses.
This isn’t really the core of the book. The core is more about what happens in the rest of life, what makes you human, not just a worker. Still, it resonates with many people.
Might be a message in there for managers?
SunLit: Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
Fox: Process is so personal to each person. I try to do a little every day, chip away at projects.
I am a big believer in the daily practice of writing, but that is mostly because I feel better when I engage in daily practice. That’s not how everyone is wired. Some people binge write. Some people dedicate a certain day.
However, after writing and publishing four books, I actually spend less time writing than I used to. I spend a lot more time thinking and reading. I spend more time wandering around my neighborhood, walking and turning over ideas.
Process, I suppose, changes over time, just like we do as people.
SunLit: Why write about what you call above “realism-based literary fiction”?
Fox: I’m not against escapist fiction. I think sometimes people think of escaping in terms of genre fiction, like romance or fantasy. Which can be true! Literary fiction can do it too, though. The “escape,” so to speak, is entering any fictional world. That might be one that is very adjacent or resonant to your own life, or it might be one that feels as distant as my moon story.
I think it is really worth reading as widely as possible. In recent years, I’ve read a lot more that is not fiction, that is not literary, and I have especially sought out works written by people who don’t look like me. There is an incredible amount of books coming out every year, and I would encourage readers to ask their librarian or independent booksellers about new (and classic) favorites. You might be surprised. It’s not always aligned with the bestsellers list.
SunLit: Tell us about your next project.
Fox: Ah! I would love to, but I’m very superstitious about talking about writing instead of, you know, writing.
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