Interview with Allison Wyss: “I seem to need fallow periods for my creativity.”

Allison Wyss is the author of the short story collection, Splendid Anatomies (Veliz Books, 2022), which explores themes of body modification, dismemberment, and fairy tales.

Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Water~Stone Review, Cincinnati Review, and Alaska Quarterly Review. Allison also writes a monthly column, Reading Like a Writer, for the Loft Literary Center, where she teaches fiction writing. She co-founded the Minneapolis Storytelling Workshop with Erin Kate Ryan.

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Hi Allison, thank you for joining us today! Your short story collection, Splendid Anatomies, has been praised for its unique exploration of body modification, dismemberment and fairy tales. Can you tell us about your fascination with these themes and how you integrate them into your writing?

Thank you! It’s fun to be here. It’s fun to read through all these writers’ fascinating responses to your questions too. So. Splendid Anatomies is really about the ways different characters try to claim their own bodies. And they do it in a lot of weird ways – through surgical modifications, prostheses, fairytale magic, sometimes violently. They change to toads, get tattoos, snip off extra limbs. Sometimes they lose the line between their own body and that of the world around them.

I think my fascination with bodies and their weirdness has been with me forever but has intensified in recent years. I noticed the particular gore of being embodied when I had a baby. But now with the current health crisis, I’m thinking more about the ways all bodies are connected and how we draw lines of self – how arbitrary it all is and then how to draw new lines. Of course, we’re all cyborgs by this point. But also, of course we’re all connected. My stories are trying to tell the truth of that.

I integrate these themes, essentially, by making sure my characters are truly embodied. Because of that, they’re going to do everything they can to make their body fit their sense of self. And, you know, all of us build our bodies – we do it in mundane and socially accepted ways and we do it in ways that are contested at every turn. We use our clothing, cosmetics, nutrition, dentistry, hormones, surgery, healthcare. And so my stories follow that journey with the characters, even as it gets really weird.

My characters are not always successful in claiming their bodies. But I think the collection as a whole is about striving to do so, and it’s trying to say that even when we fail, or even when it’s terrifying, that having and claiming a body is inherently human and it’s beautiful.

The stories in Splendid Anatomies are set in different universes and locations, from the lands of fables to the Midwest. How do you choose the settings for your stories and what role does place play in the characters’ journeys of self-discovery?

In a geographical sense, I think my writing is very Midwestern. There’s something about the people and the landscape and the weirdness that is persistently crawling into my stories – and maybe crawling under my skin. There’s just something alive and very grotesque underneath the manners and quiet way of living. I love what happens if that terror surfaces.

But I also tend to think of setting very broadly – it’s not just the place, but the situation, culture, history, and especially the power dynamics that underlie everything.

And I think that intersects with characters in all of the ways! One thing I’m particularly interested in is how a character’s identity is formed in response or in contrast to their surroundings. The friction of who they think they are and who the world thinks they are is really fraught and I’m always interested in how that might play out.

Your stories have been published in a variety of literary magazines and your column “Reading Like a Writer” offers insight into the craft of fiction. How do you balance your creative writing with your teaching and writing about the craft of fiction?

I try to make them feed into each other, though I admit that sometimes the balance is lost and the teaching or craft analysis just completely devours my own writing. 

But I don’t hate that as much as I should. I seem to need fallow periods for my creativity, when I’m not writing as much, but I’m still living in the world of stories and ideas. Then when I come out of that with a new project I’m excited about, I see that I have been learning new skills and strategies all along, that those other craft-related activities have been feeding me after all.

And I actually think this is important and not talked about enough: It’s ok to take breaks from writing! So much advice is to write every day no matter what! But that’s bad advice, because it just doesn’t take into account the reality of most people’s lives and their other obligations. Some writers have the support that allow them to write every day; some don’t. And the first kind of person is not more of a writer than the second.

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The characters in your collection are described as “very peculiar and human” who learn to love themselves through reclaiming their bodies. Can you tell us more about this journey of self-discovery in your stories and how you create these unique and memorable characters?

I often start with a voice. I feel the rhythms of it and I start to figure out what the character is like and what they want. Then I put them in a situation and see what happens. And maybe my stories are about characters discovering and building themselves to match what they discover because that’s what I’m doing as I write the story. But I don’t think that’s all of it. I think I write my stories about that because it’s what all of us are doing as human beings.

I tend to fall a little bit in love with my characters. That makes me invest in the story. But then when I know them as people, it’s fun to let a character go wild. I let them do things I’d never do or make choices that seem just odd or unlikely or even cruel. I actually think there’s something really resonant if you can achieve the right balance of liking your characters and letting them do wrong things – a tenderness is created – a space where you can care and judge at the same time.

You co-founded the Minneapolis Storytelling Workshop. Can you share with us your experience as a teacher and mentor to aspiring writers?

I love to teach writing, but what I love about it is not some absurd idea of imparting wisdom to others – I don’t have any special wisdom, at least not more than anyone else. What I love about it, instead, is that I get to gather a bunch of people who care about the same weird ideas that I do, and we geek about it all. And in the process of that, we build new wisdom together. My teaching is always about facilitating the space to build wisdom together.

What does a typical writing day look like for you? 

I write around the edges of everything else that is happening in my life – my kid, my community, my work. Most of my work is freelance and so it tends to come in waves, but I also have dry spells. So when I’m not busy with the work I get paid for and the kid is in school, I put my head down and write as much as I can. 

But when I’m busy with other things, I’ll just grab small snippets of time to work on a story for fifteen minutes here and there. And that’s not ideal! It’s very hard for me to write that way. But I learned to do it when I became a parent and suddenly only had that long at a stretch, ever. And I learned that it’s slow going, but it still counts. 

If you could have a conversation with any artist throughout history about their creative process, who would that be and why?

So I have not researched this in any depth whatsoever, but I always think of Mary Shelley’s “waking dream” that she said brought her Frankenstein and I’d love to dig into that with her. Mostly because I think it must be a load of crap! 

Of course, when you talk about your creative process, there are all these societal pressures about what you can and can’t say. Afterall, you’re trying to sell the book! More importantly, you still have to live in this world where everybody already thinks you’re a weirdo, so you probably also want to scale that back. Maybe she had to say it came to her that way because otherwise she’d have to admit to spending too much time thinking about this monster. And also how lovely that her “waking dream” has become part of the story itself – a framing of it that makes it even more terrifying. 

But I think our conversation might also get to the idea that writing doesn’t start when you physically hold a pen or type words onto a screen. It starts long before. I think about stories for years before I know they are stories or what they are about. They’re just odd little ideas that roll around in my head until they feel real enough to write down. I think we should give more credit to the thinking part of writing. Even if Mary Shelley did have that waking dream, it happened because of all that she had been thinking – and the other ways she’d been feeding her brain – for a long time. 

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite recent reads?

I’m in the middle of Erika T. Wurths’ White Horse at the moment and have also just cracked Gods of Want by K-Ming Chang. Really loving both so far. I was recently blown away by Megan Gidding’s The Women Could Fly – it’s amazing! 

What does your current workspace look like?

It’s a mess and it’s not one space but all over my house. I work in a freezing cell in a basement room when I need to hide from my family. But when I have the house to myself, I work at the kitchen table, or on the couch with my feet up. But every day – whether I have real time or just those snippets – I have my laptop open on a kitchen counter next to the fridge, and I write between making breakfast and stuffing snow pants into a backpack and listening to drum practice. It’s chaos, but it sort of works.

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