Q&A with Allison Wyss

Allison Wyss, writer of issue-nine story “When I See the Toad,” is releasing her first book, Splendid Anatomies! Below, she’ll tell us a bit about it, what inspires her, what she’s working on now, and much more. Congratulations, Allison!

What is something you’re fascinated with at the moment?
Cyborgs! Fairy tales! Dismemberment! And maybe not just this moment but always. 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 after all.”

My short story collection, Splendid Anatomies (Veliz Books) is all about this. It’s got stories about tattoos and plastic surgery and prostheses, as well as stranger, gorier body modifications. The story that appeared in Sundog Lit (and is also in Splendid Anatomies) is about a witch and a toad, but it’s also about strange sexual power, pregnancy, and magical transformation of and through the body. The question of the line between body and world, between self and other, also the imaginary (I think) boundary between body and mind–I’m interested in characters who push those boundaries. I examine all this through fairy tales or space travel or body horror, or sometimes with more realistic stories (whatever that means).

And it’s been going on for a while, but my fascination intensified when I had a baby and my body was just this huge (literally massive) science fiction-y thing. Being inside a body is already violent and troubling. But try being two people at once for the space of a pregnancy! And afterward, still being two people. Or maybe recognizing all the ways we’re physically and grotesquely joined with other humans. I just think the lines we draw are arbitrary and so there could be other ways to draw out what is me and what is not me.

And of course this also gets into very real questions, with huge implications, of who gets to own and control their body. These are moral questions and political questions and life-or-death questions. Bodies are glorious and powerful and strange. And also this freaking world always has something to say about them. The world wants to control a body, or own a body, or manipulate the way we feel about a body. And that’s bullshit. But I see people fighting to claim their bodies every single day. And sometimes it’s really painful to fight for your own body. The fight can even be against your own body, but also always for it. And that’s such a worthwhile battle. That’s what I can’t stop thinking and writing about.

Tell us a little about your writing process (from the first word to the last edit).
I have no idea where a story comes from. But I like to take walks and cook and think. I like to keep this time free from listening to podcasts or music because quiet better conduces daydreaming for me. And I like to think about an idea for a long time before trying to write it down. I let it get weird first, let it marinate in its own funk.

And then I start writing. I try not to hurry. I think my stories get deeper if I work on them during different seasons, all parts of a year, as well as in different moods, different times of day. I don’t often have time for this anymore, but I try.

And then I teach writing classes that go really deep into a specific aspect of craft. So if I get stuck on a story, I’ll make myself do whatever exercises I’m giving to my class. Then I’ll teach a different class and examine the story from another angle.

So I guess that equals a first draft plus many rounds of revision. But if there’s a more useless unit of measurement than “draft,” I’ve never found it. It can mean changing one word or completely starting over. I don’t know where the line is between writing and revision either. When I work on a story, I feel like I’m always doing both up to the very last moment.

Is there a place that has inspired your writing? If so, where is it and what about it made for good material?
In a geographical sense, I think my writing is utterly and perhaps embarrassingly Midwestern. I haven’t always lived in the Midwest, but I grew up in Indiana and I now live in Minnesota. And there’s something about the people and the landscape and the weirdness that is persistently crawling into my stories.

But! That’s not the first thing that entered my mind at this question! I first thought of art museums. I lived in DC when I was doing my MFA and had this miraculous time devoted to writing. There are so many amazing free art museums that also have quite comfortable couches throughout. I would walk around until I found a painting or sculpture that was weird or beautiful in the right way and I’d look at it for a while and then I’d write for a few hours. It was a dreamy existence. I don’t have much time for that anymore.

Any recommendations for readers, i.e. books, movies, television, art, anything under the sun?
I usually talk about Carmen Maria Machado, Helen Oyeyemi, Kiese Laymon, and Danielle Evans because they’re such favorites and I teach their work all the time. But you know, Erin Kate Ryan has a phenomenal novel, Quantum Girl Theory, just about to release. You’ve probably all heard about Sequoia Nagamatsu’s How High We Go in the Dark, but it’s great. Right now I’m reading Kristiana Kahakauwila’s This is Paradise and will likely write about it next for my craft column. Finally, Maud Casey’s City of Incurable Women is fantastic.

And yes, yes, TV! The Expanse has absolutely saved me during isolation. Space TV is pandemic TV. A closed, suffocating spaceship matches quarantine, but then the vastness of the universe lets me dream of release. Also–back to my fascinations–it’s a show that takes bodies into account in horrifying ways. But The Magicians is also a series that I can’t stop re-watching. Extra fingers! Sliced off hands! Magical worlds!

What are you working on now?

I’ve got a novel I’m supposed to be finishing, but I’m letting it relax a bit as my collection launches. I’m letting myself write small bits of flash, delightfully weird stuff. Every new story opens a void and it’s terrifying but it also feels like getting back to the start of it all.