I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.
~Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how they spend the day.
September 1, 2022: Wendy J. Fox
Here is Wendy J. Fox in 2019 with the three books that preceded her linked story collection, What if We Were Somewhere Else, which was published last November by the Santa Fe Writers Project and which I just finished reading—this is a book that starts good and becomes amazing. I loved it. There’s so much pleasure to be had in reading it–pleasure in the different ways we get to know the characters, pleasure in the characters themselves, pleasure in discovering the structure of the book, pleasure in how the structure tells the story. Pleasure in the ways the stories speak to each other and pleasure in the many ways particular stories echo each other. Pleasure in the writing itself.
You know that thrill when you see someone you know in a place you weren’t expecting. Or that desire, when you see someone you recognize but can’t quite place, to figure out how you know them and to tell someone what you know about them. Linked collections with a number of different narrators give the reader those feelings. There’s the pleasure of talking to Kate and then talking about Kate.
Since I rarely write in detail about a book’s plot, it’s been a long time since I introduced a writer with a SPOILER ALERT. Usually, I write about sentences or paragraphs. Or how a book starts. But in this case, it’s ALL a spoiler. Everything I tell you about this book will take some pleasure away from reading it yourself. So my recommendation is that you stop reading this introduction now and head off to order this book from the independent bookstore of your choice.
What If We Were Somewhere Else is not officially divided into parts, which is to its credit. I’m afraid I would have officially divided, and that would have taken some of the pleasure away from the reader. Here’s what I discovered as I read.
The structure of these 15 stories, which as I finished the second Kate story, I thought was creating a different shape, turned out to be this:
Kate1, Heather1, Laird1, Sabine1, Melissa1, Michael1, Christian1.
Kate2, Heather2, Laird2, Sabine2, Melissa2, Michael2, Christian2.
Kate3, and in my imagination, …
Kate tells the first story, “The Book of Names, a Spreadsheet,” which is anchored at an unnamed office, and Kate, the office manager, is thinking about how things are not going well for her at home. And then, on the same day her husband serves her with divorce papers, a number of people in the office are fired. Not Heather, the risk analyst, but Laird, Sabine, Melissa, Michael, and Christian. As you can see above, these five, along with Kate and Heather, will be our seven narrators.
Most of the first stories take place at the office, but no matter where they take place, that narrator’s second story takes place somewhere else. The first Kate story begins with this sentence: “In the office there were sounds.” The second Kate story begins with this sentence: “In our home there were sounds.” There’s always some repetition of the first story on the first page of the second story. Which would lead to the conclusion that no matter where you are, there you are.
However, these second stories, when Kate finds the note that her husband has gone to his mother’s and left her, when Heather breaks her foot, and when all these other narrators are down and out, these stories lift off the page. The second round of stories are the ones that sing. Which leads to a different conclusion, actually lots of wonderful little conclusions.
Then there’s the last story in the collection, a third Kate story, which is different in so many ways.
And the writing. There’s something so real about each of these stories–the concrete physical details, the settings, and especially Wendy’s ability to get inside her characters and put their thoughts, in exactly the way each one would say something, on the page. The tone is so exactly right. Take a look at these examples.
From Kate’s second story, “Tornado Watch,” where I underlined almost everything. This is a hell of a story all by itself.
We were married to one another, and we were married to work, and we were married to our ideas, our ridiculous ideas–so caught up in the way laundry was folded or aspirational grocery lists. Most nights the produce rotted as we hit the booze.
From Heather’s second story, “The Empathy Chart,” where I also underlined almost everything. Also fabulous all by itself.
I am so, so sorry that I was short with [my mother] about the gravy tureen.
From Laird’s second story, “Wish in the Other.” I was so in this story, I forgot I was even reading. Doesn’t happen often.
Even before I lost my job, I had mentioned wanting to go back to my mom’s house to [Cale.]
“Yeah, man, it’s not a problem per se, it’s just optics. Like with girls, it doesn’t look good,” [Cale] said.
I was pretty sure I had never given a fuck about optics, whatever that even was.
I could go on and on. I’ve started my own spreadsheet… But I want to leave you with a bit of hope from the artist Sabine’s second story, “Pivot, Feather.”
The way the steam rose from the waffle iron seemed inexplicably hopeful. It seemed like the way smokestacks puffing smoke once felt like progress. It seemed like a curl of mist rising from a thawing pond. It seemed like a finger of cloud she could float on, like one of her birds in one of her bird-scapes.
If We Were Somewhere Else was reviewed in The New York Times Book Review.
In this book, Fox asks what makes a life meaningful. Each story tunes into a crisis moment when the characters are caught between their current life and a risky outward trajectory…Even while moving insightfully through the more alienating facets of office culture–networking parties, breakroom concerns–Fox invests most of all in what makes us people over workers: those closely held moments pregnant with change, when a new life could break open if we just reach for the person next to us.
Wendy’s first book, The Seven Stages of Anger & Other Stories, published by Press 53, was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award. Her debut novel, The Pull of It, published by Underground Voices, was named a top pick by Displaced Nation. Her most recent novel If The Ice Had Held, published by Santa Fe Writers Project, was a BuzzFeed recommended read and a grand prize winner from Santa Fe Writers Project. What If We Were Somewhere Else recently won the Colorado Humanities Award for Literary Fiction. Wendy writes for BuzzFeed, is a champion of independent presses, and lives in Denver, Colorado.
Come back on SEPTEMBER 1st to read how WENDY J. FOX spends her days.