In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Allison Wyss
Your short story “FastDog Security” in Volume 23 is, as Keith Lesmeister wrote in his editorial letter, “quirky and odd, in the best possible way.” Can you tell us how the idea came to you to write about a public transit security officer with terrible anxiety? What was your inspiration?
I first started thinking about what would become this story a very long time ago. I was on a cross-country bus trip and it must have been about 2002. As a country, we were just getting used to thorough searches in airports and the Patriot Act was looming and awful. But these were buses and we just got on and off them, no big deal, until at one station, there was a little checkpoint set up. There hadn’t been anything like that at the other stations. But my travel buddy and I let this fellow poke through our bags and wand us. Then we got on the bus and looked at each other and neither of us was quite sure if the man had any business being there. It scared me that I didn’t know, and I still just let him search me. In my brain then, it was going to be a story about the way so many of us submitted to search, collectively, without question, and how we gave up those aspects of our rights and privacy–how fear made us so easy to manipulate. I thought it was going to be a story about that. But on that bus ride it also turned into a joke that the guard’s wand wasn’t real. Years later, my travel buddy had turned into my husband, and we were still joking about that guy making beeping sounds out of his mouth. I don’t think he actually did, but I forgot what the original person was like, and Hank took his place in my brain. Then it was still a story about fear and anxiety. But it was coming from a very different angle. And I think that’s pretty reflective of the way I write. I often start out wanting to write about an “idea” and that almost never works out for me. The stories I keep with are when a character grabs me or when I get consumed by someone’s voice. But, of course, every character lives in a bigger world, and so the story has to also be about the world. Finding a character gives me an angle on the world and on whatever “idea” I want to take on.
“FastDog Security” reads very tight and controlled, which I think says a lot about Hank, the narrator. How much did point of view factor in your writing decisions when you considered how to exaggerate Hank’s sense of controlling his narrative?
Well, he has to keep that tight control–his world is spinning out on him. I think the patterns of speech of a narrator can serve as a sort of mask for their true, tender self, or as a way of hiding their fears and vulnerabilities. Hank has to hold on tightly and when his control slips, when he can’t control his storytelling, that’s when it gets really interesting. It’s like, whenever someone is wearing a mask, you wonder so much harder what their face looks like. When something is hidden, it makes you want to find it. Because a character pretends to be tough, we know they are vulnerable, and we feel compelled to find that vulnerability, to poke at it. The words are the mask and we watch for when the mask slips.
With Erin Kate Ryan, you co-founded and run the Minneapolis Storytelling Workshop which includes classes and prompts that engage writers with television, comics, movies, and games. It’s a really fun and offbeat resource for many of us! What do these various mediums of art and storytelling mean to your own writing?
You know, we really just started the Minneapolis Storytelling Workshop because we wanted to teach a class about Buffy The Vampire Slayer and other organizations wouldn’t let us. But then it’s grown into something bigger. What we noticed is there are a lot of people who don’t necessarily think of themselves as intellectuals or artists or creatives, yet they’re having amazing conversations about TV shows. Because TV is great! And so are other forms of storytelling, even the ones that snobs roll their eyes at. All storytelling can be really subversive, too, which is something we’re always looking for when we teach classes or send out prompts. We are always looking for ways to fight injustice through engagement with narrative. How do we write stories that challenge societal norms? How do we re-envision the world? And how do we make those stories compelling enough that they lodge in people’s brains and do the work? Most of our prompts and our classes are about those ideas. But I should also admit we’ve been significantly less active since the pandemic started. So it’s a little bit dormant, but still alive!
This issue was birthed during this pandemic and the political and social unrest that’s been spilling over on the streets in cities nationwide. It feels like day after day we witness more violence and division, and we felt that the title “hunger for tiny things” took on a multi-faceted poignance for this issue. I’m curious—what tiny things do you hunger for these days?
It’s pretty satisfying to do tiny things. It’s a thing I realized kind of recently. It’s easy to use “that’s not enough” as an excuse to do nothing at all. But there are a million ways to do some tiny thing that might help a person or, you know, challenge fascism. I’m talking about mutual aid, I think. What tiny thing do I have that would be more just if someone else had it? Suddenly it’s less tiny.
Writers tend to write what haunts or obsesses them. What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing, or tend to show up a lot in your work?
I write about cyborgs, I guess. But not exactly that. I like to think about what is body and what is something else, how other things become us, and also how we can cast off parts of ourselves to say “that is not me.” I like to think about how we can redraw the lines of self. In “FastDog Security,” the tool Hank uses becomes a part of him. It integrates with him in a way that when it doesn’t work, his own body takes over for it. Most of my stories take a look at how body is defined and boundaried by different characters. I often use gore to explore this, or magic, but sometimes it’s through more mundane things. I write about tattoos and cosmetic surgery, and about ghosts and dismemberment.
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
When other people answer this question, I think, “Oh those are great writers and I should go read them!” When I answer this question, it sounds like “She thinks she’s as good as those writers? I don’t think so.” But! When I first read Kelly Link, it broke open the world for me in terms of writing stories that are weird and cross genre and can do anything they want. She’s not the only one, but she’s incredible and she’s the first I read like that. In the past few years, here are just a few writers who have re-blown my mind: Carmen Maria Machado, Helen Oyeyemi, Kathryn Davis, Kiese Laymon, Yukiko Motoya. I don’t think I write like them. But I definitely learn from them. I also have a craft column for the Loft Literary Center, in which, once a month, I try to learn about just one technique from a book I am reading. I learn so much from all of the books I write about there.
What craft element challenges you the most in your writing? How do you approach it? What is your quirk as a writer?
I hate to research. I just want to make it all up.
What projects are you working on right now?
I’ve been working on a novel for way too many years, but it’s finally maybe getting close? And I’m always writing flash–someone in my writing group noticed that lately it’s been “gooey” flash. So maybe that will keep up and I’ll someday have a whole book of ooze.
Allison Wyss’s stories have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Cincinnati Review, Moon City Review, Yemassee, Lunch Ticket, Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere. Some of her ideas about the craft of fiction can be found in a monthly column she writes called Reading Like a Writer for the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, where she also teaches classes. And she’s hard at work on her first novel, which is about dismemberment, fairy tales, and what makes your body yours. You can learn more about Allison and her work at her website.