What Is and Is Not a Body: The Millions Interviews Allison Wyss

June 2, 2022 | 1 book mentioned 10 min read

Allison Wyss is a writer and teacher in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her debut collection of short stories, Splendid Anatomies, was published earlier this year by Veliz Press. She also writes a popular column on the craft of writing for the Loft Literary Center and her interest in how stories work is evident in her own writing. Her stories are lively and strange and span across known and unknown universes, in a collection in which there are no rules. The stories vary in length and style, though each one shares elements of playfulness and curiosity in the world. When recommending the book to a friend I said that reading it felt, at times, like having a possibly-psychedelic drink with a witch. I think that’s apt, but curious readers should test my metaphor. 

Wyss spoke to me about creating worlds, writing over years, and living in human bodies. The conversation that follows was held over email and then drinks in March of 2022.

Margaret LaFleur: In the acknowledgements page of Splendid Anatomies, you thank your family for “making you weird.” While it’s fair to say the stories in this collection are weird—there are talking spiders, time vortexes, ghosts—I’m curious how you would describe the collection as a whole. What do these stories have in common and what are you hoping readers take from the collection? 

Allison Wyss: Truthfully, I didn’t know how to thank my family because I don’t really know if they’ll want to be thanked after they read the book. But! On the whole I think of the collection as being about body modification, and more broadly about bodies. Many of the individual stories are specifically about bodies and people fighting either with or against them, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. And then for other stories Splendid Anatomies is about problematizing the line between what is and is not a body. It’s about the borders of self, the borders of me. Human beings are good at othering, but if we want to, we can also draw people in. We can draw objects into ourselves, too. We can draw in the whole world. I can say that you and me, sitting here together focused on the same topic, gathered at the same table, breathing the same air, are the same organism. And who can prove that I’m wrong? And who can say, really, that my clothes aren’t my body, or that the chair holding me up is not. And if I decide to change my body—adding to it or taking away—my body only becomes more me. 

I really think that the story about tattoos and a story about losing yourself in yogurt and a story about turning into a toad  are individually about tattoos, yogurt, and toads, but collectively they are about the boundary between self and other, as defined—or not defined at all!—by what is body. And the stories about plastic surgery and naked space travel and veins becoming worms are, again, about those things individually, but collectively they are about all of the ways people fight to control and claim and own their bodies. Because all these stories are bound in the same book, they are all part of the same body and that itself blurs the boundary of a body. 

ML: Tell me a little bit about when you wrote the first story in the collection? Or, how do you see this collection beginning?

AW: Some of these stories are really, really old. One of the oldest ones came into being after I was talking to friends in a bar and I went home and wrote “Nutsacks in Space” about things we talked about, like floating naked through space. At the time I was just writing stories. I didn’t notice for a while that they were about the same things. It took someone else pointing out my hang-ups. There were always people doing weird things with their bodies. And then I focused for a long time on writing a novel but I kept writing stories sort of in between the cracks of that. The stories became even weirder, especially after having a baby. The body stuff became more front and center, how gross and messy it is to exist in the world and just be human.

ML: Did you have an agent? Or did you submit the manuscript directly to publishers?

AW: When I wrote the story “Boobman,” it was rejected ninety-something times, but I always really liked the story and had a lot of faith in it, so I kept submitting it. It was ultimately published by Moon City Review and nominated for a Pushcart. I thought “What the hell? This is amazing!” Someone finally, really got what I was doing. Right around then Moon City Press had a collection contest. “Boobman” really felt like an anchor to a collection and I thought, Well, if they like what I’m doing, then I’ll to put this all together into a collection, and submitted it to the contest. I didn’t win , but I was a runner-up. The editor at Veliz, my publisher, saw my name on that list. He looked up the other stories that I’d published in other journals. He liked those and then he got in touch with me and asked if he could read the collection. He liked it. It went through some changes after that, of course, but that’s how Veliz found it.

ML: So you’re saying it’s worth it to publish in literary journals?

AW: One hundred percent yes. This collection happened because I was publishing in literary journals. And because I was publishing in online literary journals. I don’t think he went out and bought the journals of stories that were only available in print, but he was able to find my work online. Of course when I got runner-up I was devastated. I was so close! I wanted a book so bad I could eat it. It was torture to be so, so close. But then it did bring me to my editor.

ML: I find much of your writing to be very visual, though you achieve a lot of imagery without a ton of description. In “Only Real Art Lasts Forever” there is a woman covered in tattoos, though only a handful of tattoos are actually described in detail. Do your stories begin with images for you? Or do you find that comes after characters or circumstances?

AW: I often wonder if I approach imagery differently than other writers do, but I don’t know! I learned a few years ago that I don’t see pictures in my mind, by which I mean, I learned a few years ago is that other people do see them. And what I had thought was a metaphor—picturing things when you think of them—is literal for most people. Instead, inside my brain, I know what things look like, but there is no visual element to it. I don’t know if some of how I think of imagery is related to that difference in the way my brain works.

It’s often some idea that is much more abstract, and the process of writing is about finding how to make it tangible. Like a feeling or complicated mix of feelings, or a personality or question or a desire. And then finding what character or scene or moment embodies that feeling. But that is really early in the process, way before I start writing anything down. Stories often live in my head for years before I try to write a first draft or even a first sentence.

When I do start writing, voice is very often the piece I start with. I can often feel the rhythms of a character’s speech before I know who they are or what their story is about. Or if I start with another element—a circumstance or an image—it’s not until I find a voice that the story takes off. 

ML: One of my favorite stories of yours is “The Seamstress and the Spider.” It is a fairytale told by a grandmother that is at once a fable and also a story about how stories are told. Can you tell me a little about how you approach stories that play with narration and form like this?

AW: This question proves I lied in my answer to the previous one. A story like “The Seamstress and the Spider” did start with imagery. It started with what I’d call “flashpoints.” I sometimes get taken with certain ideas or objects and I try to write different stories about the same things. In this case I was writing about spiders, sewing, and severed arms. I have some other stories, not in the collection, that spin around those same flashpoints. I’ve also written three disparate pieces of flash about worms that work the same way: I kept thinking about veins being worms and it spun into three different stories, that are not really alike, and yet they are alike. 

I think this method of storytelling is very authentic! Or I tell myself it is. It seems to me like in the history of oral storytelling—which I have read and thought about but not formally studied—there must be these flashpoints, these shining details that are remembered even if the rest of the story falls away. Because when you’re only telling stories out loud and you don’t use the remote brain of writing—you just use your actual memory, which is of course imperfect. And so in some ways, every time a fairy tale is retold, it really is the teller spinning something brand new from the flashpoints of whatever it is they can remember from when the story was told to them. It’s a game of telephone, and the flashpoints are the details so vivid they can’t be forgotten. It seems to me like starting again and again from the same vivid details gets you to new places each time and also maybe always to the same place, but with a different spin on it. 

ML: What is it that draws you to fairy tales and rewriting from the fairy-tale form?

AW: I love the strangeness. I love that the form is counter to traditional workshop craft. They are also women’s stories and children’s stories. They’re not taken seriously. They come from oral storytelling, which is seen as less educated and therefore less respected. It feels subversive, then, to write in that form. They are also conversations. They invite retelling in a new way. It feels like inviting someone to speak after you because of the tradition of oral storytelling.

ML: I don’t feel like any of the fairytale stories in your collection have a moral, which is something commonly associated with fairy tales. I wonder how you feel about stories with moral lessons?

AW: If you look at fairy tales as a whole, the history of every fairy tale ever written, you can find morals for each story, but they often contradict each other. One will say “Oooh, don’t step off the path.” But another will say “Oooh, you stayed on the path and you’re going to be punished for that.” The punishments are completely unpredictable. 

I think if you look at the morals of most fairy tales, they’re just some version of “The world is a dangerous place.” My fairy tales also say that the world is dangerous and unexpected. But one way to retell a story is to reframe the moral. Beauty and the Beast is often told as if the moral is “Be kind and your beast of a husband will treat you well.” But maybe the moral was actually “Hey, this world is scary. You’re going to be sold to a monster. And eventually, he’ll still be a monster, but you’ll be brainwashed into thinking he’s okay.” It’s actually more like a warning. But the story supports either reading.

ML: Speaking of form, there are a few stories in this collection that utilize footnotes, such as the ghost story “Dr. Francis Longfellow Hendrix.” How does employing a tool or structure that traditionally belongs to non-fiction writing affect how you approach a story? Are the footnotes there from the beginning?

AW: In “Dr. Francis Longfellow Hendrix,” they were there right away. In the tattoo story, they didn’t come until very recently—after the story was first published, in fact. But here’s what I think they do: They’re a way to break a story open. The story is contained by a voice but also punctured by something else. It makes the inside story into an artifact of a bigger world. It’s just a great way to poke it.

If the voice of the story, the narrator, is the only voice we get, then that voice becomes a sort of god of the story and the story is the whole world and there is nothing outside it and there might not be a hole for the reader to crawl into. But if there’s another voice to question it, the world gets bigger and the perspective gets problematized. It’s a way to say, Oh hey, this is just one view of things—there are probably others. And it’s a way to do that while being true to the voice of the story. I don’t exactly have to interrupt Dubby, who narrates “Only Real Art Lasts Forever”—I would never interrupt Dubby. But I can add these notes on top of Dubby’s story, to tell the reader she exists as a part of something bigger. 

This can sort of trick you, as a reader, into taking the story with you into the real world. It puts you in both the inner and outer story at the same time, so the border between those two dissolves. And when it does so, maybe the other border, between story and “real world” dissolves too. And I love dissolving borders! Or if the inside border doesn’t dissolve, maybe you firmly exit one, but forget to fully leave the other. That dissolves the border too—because you’ve stopped reading, but you haven’t left the story. 

ML: I think of these stories as tender; both in the sense that they show a deep interest and care for what it means to be human, but also in the way we use tender to describe food. The stories are easy to consume, though some feel like quick snacks while others are full meals. Do you think the varying lengths help the collection tie together? How do you decide on the length of a story when you’re writing and revising?

AW: When I read a collection, I like the pace to vary. When I get done with a long story, I tend to feel ready for a short story. When sequencing the collection, I thought a lot about the reader’s journey through the worlds of the stories. But I also thought about ways to ease them along that journey. You don’t want put too many difficult ones together. Left to my own devices, I would have been pretty awful to my reader in terms of difficulty—it was working with a good editor that made me understand that structure is not just about what the story is trying to say, but about supporting the reader as they work through it.

I think, in theory, I believe the old cliche about a story finding its own length. But I also notice the way length of story correlates to my life. When I was workshopping stories for my MFA, I wrote 30-page stories! That’s what the workshop wanted. Writing was also the focus I had at that time: I went to class, I taught undergrads, and I wrote stories. During the summer months of that MFA, I didn’t teach or take classes and so I worked on a novel. I had whole uninterrupted months. When I had a baby, and I could only snatch small breaks here and there, and on the rare occasions that she slept, I started writing a lot more flash. And it’s not that I can write a piece of flash quickly—I still work on them for a very long time. But if I have only 30 minutes, or even 15, I can capture the whole story in my head to think about it. I can take that bite.

And I love that you talk about stories as snacks or meals, because I think about that a lot. You don’t need the same structure when you can eat the whole story in one bite. Sequence of events doesn’t matter as much, if your brain swallows it all together. It’s just “crunch!” But when the story is larger than the reader—or writer’s—brain can hold at one time, you need more structural supports to move through it. At least I need them. I know different brains work differently!

ML: I want to ask you about teaching, and the connections you see between your work as a writing teacher and your work as a writer. How do you see that relationship?

AW: I often propose classes about things I might not know very much about yet, but want to. I first taught a class on dialogue because I was struggling with writing dialogue. I knew I would have to learn and think about it more intensely. I always learn something when I teach. Sometimes I forget to use that in my own writing! I tell my students to do the stuff that is really hard and it’s all the stuff I don’t want to do either.

Ultimately, I really believe in strategies and tools, not right and wrong. I want students to think about what effects they create for the reader. Then we talk about the tools we can use to achieve that. It’s always “What do you want to do?” That’s the hard question. You have to decide what a good story is for you.

lives, teaches, and writes in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Find her in 280 characters @margosita.

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