Interview: Wendy J. Fox
Wendy J. Fox’s recent novel, If the Ice Had Held, out now from Santa Fe Writers Project, explores the secrets of a Colorado family and how far its members have gone to keep them. Told in alternating perspectives, the book is dynamically paced and the point-of-view shifts are fluid. Like in Fox’s prior books, The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories and the novel The Pull of It, her voice is lyrical, filled with both lush details and a focus on realistic, relatable female characters.
Over email, Fox and I discussed craft, the Western female mentality, and publishing through small presses. —Rachel King
Rachel King: If the Ice Had Held contains five characters—or is it six or seven or even more?—from your debut collection The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories (Press 53, 2014). How and why did you decide to reuse these characters and to connect them to one another?
Wendy J. Fox: Yes, there are half a dozen characters from my first collection who reappear in If the Ice Had Held—and that’s true for some of the characters in my earlier novel, The Pull of It, as well.
Short stories have always been my first love, and stories helped me build out some of the characters who became the protagonists of Ice without being as concerned about plot and pacing as an author necessarily has to be in a novel. That doesn’t mean stories don’t need plot, but even though The Seven Stages of Anger is just barely over a hundred pages, it’s kind of a slow read. That pace wouldn’t work in a novel, but the structure of stories allowed me to take time with the characters to discover who they are. And once I had built them, I wanted to keep working with those voices.
RK: Your aim to use a quicker pace in If the Ice Had Held was successful—I found its pace riveting, something I think difficult to achieve with multiple points of view. Did your structure, switching between different POV as well as between disparate time periods, come naturally to you, or was there a lot of trial and error?
WJF: I started working on this book in 2009. Initially, it was not divided by characters, and it was not divided by time. Frankly, the earliest versions of the manuscript were a total mess, flashing forward and back and sideways. As I got farther into it, I made a graph with time on the y-axis and people on the x-axis in order to keep it all straight.
However, I also realized that if I was leaning so heavily on my own notes and I had written the thing, it was going to be basically impossible for a reader to follow, so I started to deconstruct it, and I did this in a very manual way, printing out the book and physically rearranging pages until I got to something that felt easier to track. Once I had put it back together and had rebuilt the digital file, I went through the same exercise a few more times, and I also read the entire thing out loud to myself, twice.
I enjoyed doing this work. The act of revision is a great gift that we get in writing—we don’t have the opportunity to edit our speech or our actions once they have happened in linear time, but in writing, it’s an infinite possibility, and I find this exciting.
RK: So it seems like you’re inspired to draft and revise based on the work itself, correct? Or do future readers and/or something or someone else inspire you to keep writing?
WJF: I think that for anyone who has some kind of artistic practice, we are always compelled to do it, and always, in terms of writing, compelled to keep revising a project as we drive toward a deeper clarity. What inspires me to keep writing is the pure need of it, but what keeps me revising is trying to get drafts or manuscripts into something that someone who is not me can actually understand and relate to.
The books I love the most are those that make me really feel something, even if it’s not my specific experience. I’m not saying that I always get to that place in my own writing, but that’s definitely the goal when I approach revision.
RK: When I came to the scene where Melanie and her boyfriend are arguing, and read, “He did not know what it meant, she thought, to self-sustain. He did not know the power of it,” I thought: That’s it. That’s what I love about all these women: Melanie, Jenny, Irene, Kathleen, Lucy Estelle, Mae. They are so different from one another, yet they all desire, above all, mental, emotional, and/or financial self-sustenance. Was this a conscious choice to create these kinds of female characters?
WJF: For me, it’s less of a choice to “create” these kinds of female characters than to “tell the story” of the women who I know, interact with, and admire. My girlfriends are raising families, going to their jobs, doing their thing, and they are all, without fail, working really, really hard. I’ve been lucky to have incredible female role models, from my grandmother, to my mother, to mentors in my day job and in the writing life, to aunties (both biological and social). My maternal grandmother got pregnant with my dad at sixteen and was forced to drop out of high school and get married. And then, in 1956, she got divorced. She’d never literally say fuck off to the establishment, but really she did say fuck off whether she’d use those words or not. My own mother taught me the value of being a woman, but she also taught me that as a woman you have to work twice as hard for half the reward, so do the work. Fight against it too, but don’t stop doing it. Of course that’s true, or even doubly true for people of color and our friends in the LGBTQ community.
The emotional labor that women take on in life is not news, but what I think gets lost sometimes is that there’s power in this, too, in being the person who holds it together, of being a person who can hustle.
RK: Do you think some of the self-sufficiency in these women comes from their being Westerners—that a kind of Western female mentality exists? I don’t like to generalize, but at the same time these women struck such a strong chord with me, a Western woman who comes from generations of Western women. Do you think this mentality might arise from surviving certain Western landscapes?
WJF: Some years ago, I might have said “no” to this. I might have said, Oh yeah, well, we are all Americans at the end of the day. Yet, after being pegged as a “Western writer” in a review, I started to thing about this more. There is a Western female mentality, and it is linked to self-sufficiency, thought I would put another layer on this and connect it to the rural, no matter where those rural landscapes are.
At the end of this winter, I was at my father’s house in a remote part of Washington, after he’d had a surgery on his shoulder. I’m bringing load after load after load of wood for the stove from the shed to the porch, stacking it higher and higher, trying to set him up for a few days before my brother would be able to get there from California. I was eyeballing how much wood my dad would need and then also arranging it in a way I hoped was easy to retrieve. I thought I did a pretty good job—that wood box was crammed and overflowing onto the interior porch and I even chopped kindling—but he still blew two post-surgery stiches from leaning down into the wood box. So, obviously, I told myself, I could have done a better job.
That’s probably how a lot of women think—I could have done better—whether they’ve ever relied solely on wood heat or not, though when one lives less-connected to the grid it can be pastoral and all that, but it’s also an incredible amount of physical work, and that informs a lot of Western writing as well as rural writing.
RK: Yes. I can relate to that outdoor, physical manifestation of caring, too. I’ve also found the Westerners I grew up with didn’t place much value on elite universities—it wasn’t until I received a government scholarship to study abroad that I met peers (from the East) who sincerely thought my state college education inferior. I appreciated that your novel, through Melanie, Jenny, and Brian’s stories, tells the experience of millions who go without hesitation to state schools. And theirs is a particular first-generation story as well.
WJF: That’s my story: first-generation college, headed off to a regional, state school, and that was after two years of community college, which I would not trade for anything. For me, I basically wanted one thing: out of the small town I grew up in. I didn’t need to go to Harvard or Stanford or Columbia to get that—not that I applied to any of those places, and not that I would have been able to afford them on a longshot that I got in, or that I even thought of it. I had no notion of schools with a brand, and that is, to your point, definitely much more of a Western thing.
The characters in Ice are similar. They don’t always have the biggest dreams; they are not particularly aspirational. They all have something to escape, and they get there in a way that makes sense for the people who they are.
In the West, land-grant schools are an important part of the educational ecosystem. I think we can look at the current college admissions scandals and ask some questions there. This idea that the only college that matters is an elite institution is totally false. That’s not to say that there aren’t things to be gained from top-tier schools, but it is to say that we should consider what we want from higher education, if that’s the route we even choose to go.
RK: I love how your female characters often view their first time having sex as matter-of-fact experiences. For example, Jenny doesn’t make a big deal out of it or tell her partner she’s a virgin, and Irene instructs Kathleen on how to break her hymen so her future husband won’t know she hasn’t had sex yet. Fetishizing female virginity has always felt reductive and unrealistic to me. Was this a conscious choice? Do you know of any other novels that contain female characters who view “losing their virginity” in such a down-to-earth manner?
WJF: It is unrealistic, isn’t it. I grew up on a kind of farm—we didn’t farm for a living, my parents had other jobs—but we ate our own chickens and pigs and cows. In a rural environment where there are livestock around, it’s pretty clear where babies come from, and there’s not a lot of magic around the general idea of intercourse. I think it’s important to style these experiences for how they often are: outside of religious ritual or sexual violence, it’s just a thing that happens as part of life.
In terms of other works, I’m drawn to writers who portray sex as part of life, not taboo and not mystical. When it comes to women’s bodies, it’s mostly women who are writing this way. Grace Paley, in “Distance,” has Dolly Raftery describe how her husband, as long as nothing else is going on, likes his pussy at 7:45 sharp, “quick and very neat” and how by half an hour later it is all showered away and they are on to the whiskey. There’s a lot more going on in this story, but it was one of the first times that I read sex as something like dinner: a part of daily life, part of routine.
That doesn’t necessarily answer your question about virginity and the trappings associated with it, but that is part of the point. Not making a huge deal about it.
RK: Right. It all relates to the double standard, I think—that women should view sex, their first time and every time, as inherently special. And the double standard shows up in other aspects of relationships, too. I read that an agent told you that he might be able to sell your first novel, The Pull of It (Underground Voices, 2016), if the husband in it, not the wife, were leaving the family. Do you think this was a one-off or do you think his response was indicative of the majority of the literary world?
WJF: I think it’s probably a little of both. Agents are essentially specific readers with specific tastes when it comes right down to it, and I get that The Pull of It is not for everyone. What was interesting to me after really struggling to see the book into print, was how many mothers reached out to me and shared how running off was part of their fantasy life. I don’t have children, so in the writing of it I was drawing on the things that other women had told me when they were sure they were not going to be judged.
RK: Of course you had readers who could relate. Do you think the publishing industry has recognized that and opened its mind more recently to potentially “unlikeable” female characters? I am thinking now of Melanie in If the Ice Had Held, who has flings with married coworkers.
WJF: The industry feels like it has opened in some ways and closed in others. Big Five publishing wants their books to be saleable, and that’s fine, it’s a business not a salon, but it does feel like books have a shorter and shorter window in terms of getting to profit. At the same time there are books that are not conventional that are coming out in mainstream publishers. For example, in anything by Lidia Yuknavitch you’re bound to run into an “unlikelable” female, Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko has female characters who are sometimes inspirational and sometimes challenging, Ottessa Moshfegh’s unnamed protagonist in My Year of Rest and Relaxation has certainly drawn the ire of some critics, and even Tara Westover’s Educated, which I note because of a rural position, features Westover herself who has to choose against her family in order to find her path.
I think anything that has a less-than-cheery female protagonist has to be better written and better done than a novel with a main character who identifies as male.
RK: You’ve published all three of your books through small presses. I worked at a small press, then at a larger publishing company, and although we treated each author and author’s book with more individualized care at the small press, the larger company had more New York City and nationwide connections. What have you found are the pros and cons of publishing through small presses?
WJF: I’ve had a similar experience: The pros of publishing through a small or independent press is that personalized attention, including direct access to your publisher, and also the fact that many small presses will keep an author’s book in print pretty much into perpetuity. The downsides can be distribution, the lack of a marketing arm, and less visibility on the whole.
That said, I think it’s worth considering the correct publishing platform for a specific work. If I were writing serialized mystery or romance, I actually might self-pub on CreateSpace; people do extremely well there, because there is a cache of readers who burn through books at a fast rate, and writers get volume sales. For the kind of literary fiction I’m writing now, small press seems like the right home for me, because small press gives me more runway and will not yank my books out of print after the first couple of months.
RK: That makes sense. What are the best methods you’ve found to market without an agent or publicist?
WJF: The best methods I’ve found to get the word out about books is actually regular old media, which is hard but not impossible, and in that way it feels like doing the work of writing itself.
Some small presses market their books more than others. The small presses who are working to get reviews and media are the ones that ultimately I think will survive, and these presses are filling an important space. I think we’ll see more and more genre coming out of small presses, more and more small press breaking out of a traditional ultra-literary mold. For example, the press who is issuing Ice, Santa Fe Writers Project, has a wildly successful fantasy series, and that author, Daniel Ford, has the first in a crime series coming out.
There’s also the part of it where we just never know. A small press book wins the National Book Award, a big press book fizzles and doesn’t sell squat. Readers are fickle and expectations for what good books are change all the time.
Going into the launch of my third book, I’ve learned to write what I want, call it what it is, and cross my fingers.
WENDY J. FOX is the author of The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories (winner, Press 53 short fiction contest & finalist for the Colorado Book Award), The Pull of It (named a top 2016 book by Displaced Nation), and the novel If the Ice Had Held, selected as the Santa Fe Writers Project grand prize winner and named to the Buzzfeed top list of spring reads. Writing from Denver, CO and tweeting from @wendyjeanfox.
RACHEL KING’s short fiction has appeared most recently in One Story, Pigeon Pages, and Lunch Ticket, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her poetry chapbook Between Work and Light is available from Dancing Girl Press. She lives in her hometown of Portland, Oregon.