20 Questions is a Q&A interview series with musicians, authors, and everyone in between, celebrating experiences both shared and individual in the messy game of being human.
“I think about that a lot. How scared we are to screw up, and how it mostly only matters how we deal with the screw ups, because we are actually humans and not robot obituary writers, so screw ups happen all the time.” Wendy J. Fox was born in rural Washington state, which has inspired much of her writing on class and the west. Her first book, The Seven Stages of Anger & Other Stories (Press 53) was finalist for the Colorado Book Award; her debut novel The Pull of It (Underground Voices) was named a top pick by Displaced Nation; her most recent novel If The Ice Had (Santa Fe Writers Project) is a Buzzfeed recommended read and a grand prize winner from Santa Fe Writers Project. Currently found in Denver, Colorado, Fox is published widely in magazines and blogs, and is also a frequent workshop leader and event panelist. Her next story collection, What If We Were Somewhere Else, arrives this November.
I got to know all about Wendy for the latest edition of 20 Questions, where she told me about her new book, why plot doesn’t come naturally to her, why robots should be writing obituaries, and lots more.
Growing up, did you always want to be a writer? Did you consider any other career paths?
I absolutely wanted to be a writer growing up. Somewhere, I have my very first rejection slip where an editor of the local newspaper sent me back my application letter (like, I was not applying for a real job; I was twelve and had no idea how anything worked) with all of the typos highlighted. In hindsight, mean thing to do to a kid. At the time I was just thrilled to get a response.
However, when I was an actual adult, I intentionally made my way into career that was not writing. Writing was too important to me, emotionally, to be connected to my economic life. I never wanted to have to re-write a story or take writing work I didn’t believe in because I needed to make rent. So, I worked in marketing in the tech sector for a decade and a half. It was a good choice for me. I still freelance some on the side.
Was there a specific life event that inspired you to start writing books?
No, but that’s an interesting question, because before I figured out how to write a book, I always thought if I had some seminal thing happening, I could use that.
Favorite book of all-time?
That’s hard. Books take on different weight for me depending on where I am at in my life. The book I have read the most times is probably State of Grace by Joy Williams. A very close second is Ideas of Heaven by Joan Silber. The book I read over and over and over again as a child was Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt.
The best book you’ve read in the last year?
If you ask me this question in a month, my answer will change, but right now it is Edie Richter Is Not Alone by Rebecca Handler and The Four Humors by Mina Seçin.
If you could pick one author that’s inspired you the most, who would it be and why?
I love George Orwell, actually. His book Homage to Catalonia is non-fiction about his experience as an anti-fascist fighter in the Spanish civil war of 1936 to 1939. It’s a brutal account, but it’s also sometimes strangely funny. Orwell is of course best-known for his fiction, in particular 1984, but his range as a writer is incredible. He was 47 when he died. What a mark to leave on literature.
What time of day are you most inspired?
I always want to be one of the #amwriting crew, and I do like to get up early, but mostly I write in the evening, after I’ve had my day, gone off for a walk, and have had some time to process.
One song that you will never be sick of?
I’m going to completely embarrasses myself here, but I love, love, love the Cat Stevens song “Sitting” from the album Catch Bull at Four. It’s the last lines: “Life is like a maze of doors / And they all open from the side you’re on / Just keep on pushing hard, try as you may / You’re going to wind up where you started from.” This song came out five years before I was even born, but there is a kind of urgency to it that always makes me happy.
If you could have one writer, dead or alive, to compose your obituary, who would it be and why?
I honestly hope that by the time I’m dead, robots will be writing obituaries, because what a shitty assignment that would be. I’m 42. It could happen.
Favorite thing to do on a rainy day?
Your upcoming story collection What If We Were Somewhere Else follows several characters as they try to make their lives mean something in the soulless, unforgiving hollowness of corporate life. What exactly inspired that premise?
The premise was inspired by my own experiences in what I call corporate-land, which is a place that exists on a different material plan that where I hope we can all live. Jobs have a lot of power over us—and that’s not always bad; I’ve had job experiences that were truly life-changing. At the same time, sometimes jobs create a predatory power dynamic where the threat of being able to pay your rent or have health insurance is always looming.
What does the word “beauty” mean to you?
The word “beauty” is synonymous with “personal” to me.
The best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
In the late 2000s I was working at a tech company and was hosting a conference call with customers. I accidentally transposed two of the numbers for dial-in in the call invitation, so the company’s customers were directed to a sex hotline. The technical resource for the call told me: “Now the worst thing you ever thought would happen at your job, has happened. And it’s fine.” He was right. It was fine. We got it sorted, and mostly people thought it was funny. I think about that a lot. How scared we are to screw up, and how it mostly only matters how we deal with the screw ups, because we are actually humans and not robot obituary writers, so screw ups happen all the time.
What’s one vice you wish you could give up?
One movie that will always make you cry?
Dancer in the Dark, starring Björk. I’m bad at movies. I just looked this up and saw that it came out 21 years ago. The last movie I saw in a theater was Burn After Reading in 2008, but that was because I was on a date.
The last series you binge-watched?
I’m really bad at television, too! But I just finished Schitt’s Creek, because my husband, of the Burn After Reading date from above, got into watching it. Before that, I loved The Americans, because I am obsessed with all things Cold War.
What’s the most challenging part of writing for you?
I sort of hate plot! But then, I read well-plotted books and get super sucked into them, and realize that obviously plot matters, and matters a lot, because why else is one writing this thing if not to understand the narrative arc? Yet, plot doesn’t come naturally to me, at all.
The most adventurous thing you’ve ever done?
In 2002 I took a very random, unexpected job and moved to Kayseri, Turkey to teach at a state university. It was hard, but I loved it.
As a writer and artist, what would you say is the best way to rest or decompress?
I think a lot about what the poet Amanda Gorman has said about not being focused on artistic output in terms of volume, because that yokes your art to capitalism. There was a lot of my life where I was not into the idea of “rest,” because that felt lazy. I was wrong about the laziness part.
I decompress by gardening, reading, and cooking. Still, it’s super personal—that links back to your question about “beauty.” I do feel that it is beautiful to create a meal for people who I love, but others might feel obligation to cook, which is not a fun feeling. I do like to grow food and flowers; again, others might feel that it’s just another joyless task in their day, watering shit that they don’t really care about but feel pressured to do.
Perhaps the best way to rest and decompress is understand what feels like something worth doing with your time. It’s different for all of us.
One thing that’s been keeping you sane throughout the COVID-19 pandemic?
Can I say books / reading again? I always read a lot, but I read so much during lockdown. Even as an introvert, I was depressed at not being able to see people. Books, my lifelong friends, kept me from going off the rails.
What can we expect to see next from you?
I’m working on a novel, and I hope to have it into decent shape by the end of this year. But who knows. I’ve think I’ve learned not to try to predict anything in the writing process and in publishing as an industry. All I know is to keep trying—life is like a maze of doors, indeed.