Francesca Lia Bock: What was your inspiration for "The Fairy Prince" in Rough Magick?
Alise Wascom: I wrote "The Fairy Prince" not long after moving down to Louisiana from Massachusetts, so I was thinking a lot about place and displacement, about the psychology of picking up and leaving and complicated feelings of homesickness, even when you’re the one choosing to go (themes I’m still working out in my novel!). I don’t like to write too close to myself—that gets boring for me as a writer—so my character’s situation is flipped: Florida moves from southern Louisiana up to Boston. I’m also interested in “flash forwards” in fiction. They’re hard to pull off, but when it’s done right, it’s fantastic. Jennifer Egan is super masterful of the technique in her collection, A Visit From the Goon Squad. I like to challenge myself, so "The Fairy Prince" is also my (hopefully successful!) attempt at this device.
FLB: I love that answer! What is your connection to fairy tales and mythology?
AW: When I was beginning to write, I really struggled with plot. It was difficult for me to literally move the story forward. I remember going into workshop (at Emerson College) with these little, three page scenes and my professor, Rick Reiken, would say “Ok, this is good, but where is the rest? You need to finish the story.” This is not a very romantic answer, but it’s the honest one: mythology and fairy tales, those became my cheats. I would write re-tellings so I wouldn’t have to worry about plot—I knew where the story was going and where it was supposed to end up. I could flesh out the details, deepen the characters, explore different point of view, all the while knowing that, no matter what, Red Riding Hood was going to have to meet the Wolf at some point. And, in doing so—in really studying and writing and re-writing over our most classic tales—I learned about story arc. I figured out pacing. It’s during this that I really fell in love with Grimm and Anderson and of course the Greek myths. It’s a love affair that continues to this day.
FLB: I know it continues with the book you’re working on.
AW: Yes, yes! It’s a retelling of the Persephone myth, which is basically a coming of age story, right? I love this particular myth, too, because I love writing relationship triangles: the daughter, the mother, the man. But the thing I love most of all about the myth is that Persephone doesn’t just keep picking flowers with mom, she becomes Queen of the Underworld. To me, that’s potential for a really powerful, feminist, retelling. In my book, Pet lives in an off-the-grid, cult-like community in modern day Northern California with an extremely controlling, and abusive mother. Hadleigh, (my Hades) runs a dog-fighting ring and trades in exotic animals back in Lowell, Massachusetts. I’m working on some revisions now with my agent, Gail Hochman, before she sends it out on submission to publishers. I feel incredibly fortunate to have an agent with such an amazing editorial eye, and who is willing to offer that kind of help with a manuscript. Great books are not created in a vacuum; they very much depend on wonderful editors and a writer’s ability to hear and work with that kind of expert feedback. It’s a process I very much believe in.
FLB: You’ve worked in bookstores for years. What has that experience been like?
AW: I love, love, loved working in bookstores. I managed Andover Bookstore in Massachusetts for years and worked a few events at Garden District Book Shop here in New Orleans. I learned so much working in the stores: how do books make it onto the shelves, what are readers looking for, what is co-op money, how to best seller lists really work, what’s the best way to schedule an event at a store and what should you do when you get there. On and on. I find these are things many writers, even writers that have been publishing for a long time, know tragically little about. But I think it’s important to understand the business end of writing as well. Working in book stores is also a great way to make connections in the industry. Oh, and FREE BOOKS! I would definitely encourage anyone interested in learning more about the book business to do a stint in a bookshop if they can.
FLB: Who are some of your favorite writers and books?
AW: There are so many! I love Kelly Link, Amy Hempel, Toni Morrison, Aimee Bender, Mary Miller—and you! One Hundred Years of Solitude is a long standing favorite; I try to re-read it every few years and it just gets better and better. I’ve been into memoirs recently. Lidia Yuknavitch’s gorgeous The Chronology of Water is a must read (and her new novel, The Small Backs of Children is no slouch either!), but you better be ready for some gut-wrenching stuff, be ready to go dark and deep. Terry Tempest Williams’ When Women Were Birds is absolutely beautiful—I just sent a copy to my super talented artist sister-in-law up in Michigan and I’m eager to hear what she thinks! I loved The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits. I read a lot of poetry, as well. Richard Siken’s Crush is a favorite; I always like to have it within arms reach, especially when I’m writing. Once when I was going through a hard time, I carried it around with me everywhere like a security blanket. I love Sandra Beasley’s work—she’s whip smart, and funny, too. Louise Glück, of course. Maureen Thorson’s Applies to Oranges. Rebecca Lindenberg’s Love, An Index. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, which is technically essays, but I keep it on my poetry shelf. On my nightstand now is Claire Vaye Watkins’ new novel, Gold Fame Citrus. I was obsessed with her story collection, Battleborn, so I’m super excited to get into this new one. Also, Blue Girl, which is by Laurie Foos, one of my mentors at Lesley. She’s a brilliant fabulist writer—again, funny, smart and full of heart. Britton Trice who owns Garden District Books here in New Orleans convinced me to finally pick up Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, so I’ve got that queued up as well. The best book I’ve read recently is A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It’s exactly as good as everyone is saying it is—no, I take that back, it’s better. Completely devastating, which seems to be the theme in my reading! I believe wholeheartedly that it’s going to (and should) be a great American classic. The book I am an absolute evangelist for, though, is Amy Leach’s Things That Are. It was published by this great indie publisher, Milkweed, back in 2012. It’s nature writing, it’s mythology, it’s philosophy, it’s storytelling and poetry. It’s everything and it’s completely original. Sometimes when I’m revising I tell myself to “Leach” certain sections—meaning, make the language sing, go deeper, get weird. I even blessed the protagonist in my book with the author’s surname. I’m fairly obsessed, if you can’t tell!
FLB: "Make the language sing, go deeper, get weird"--that's amazing! Plus, uh... Thank you! Such great company to be mentioned in and so honored that I'm an influence on you because I'm a big fan of you! You’re working at a public library now. What do you do there? Does being around books so much ever overwhelm you as a writer? I ask because it seems that it doesn’t but rather continues to inspire.
AW: Most of my day at the library is spent helping patrons—faxing documents, making photocopies, recommending books, showing folks how to use the internet, and checking material in and out. I also make book displays, help the children’s programmer with events, research new books to get in circulation. It’s a very small library in a rural community, so everyone helps a little with everything. Ultimately, I’d love to move into an administrative position—PR, marketing, programming and events, that’s really where my interest and experience really falls. But right now I’m just learning as much as I can and asking a ton of questions. The absolute best part is being in a room full of books all day. It was the same way working at bookstores. Sometimes I just go to the back and run my fingertips along the spines, breath in that wonderful book smell. I do find it very inspiring, seeing all the books that are out there. It probably helps that I don’t have a competitive bone in my body. What overwhelms and upsets me is when I read statistics about how little Americans are reading. It’s why I’m drawn to jobs where I’m constantly putting books in people’s hands.
FLB: Tell us about the magical place you live? It looks so fantastic in all your social media posts.
AW: Thank you! Yes, up until a couple months ago, my husband and I were living on a little, private wildlife sanctuary and art colony in southeastern Louisiana—there were ducks and peacocks and chickens, cats and a big Catahoula hound dog. It was all very Flannery O’Connor, very romantic. We lived in a tiny, one room cabin on the property, our dollhouse. But then we got a nasty surprise that our rent was increasing exponentially, and with only a couple days notice. We’re not the first artists to be priced out of where they are living, but it was still very upsetting. This is was first place we lived together as a couple and it’s still very special to me. Anyway, it all worked out in the end: we found this gorgeous, pink house in the next parish over and it’s even big enough for us to finally unpack all of our books. It’s in a wonderful little railroad town that’s mostly famous for its strawberries. People are always asking when we’re going to move down to New Orleans, but I’ve spent most of my adult life living in urban cities, and I’m really enjoying small town life. I know it’s a deeply uncool position, but I think small towns are where it’s at. It’s peaceful and cheaper, both of which are much more conducive to life as a writer. I love my neighbors, I love the small town bar, and the produce market. There are substantially less peacocks in my instagram now, but I hope I can still keep it interesting!
FLB: You have been interesting since I met you as a teenager in Toronto! Anything else you’d like to share?
AW: Seriously, go buy Things That Are.