Grand prize winner Wendy J. Fox on being compelled to write but constrained by time
By Monica Prince
Wendy J. Fox is the breakout star of the 2017 Literary Awards Program and this year’s grand prize winner for her manuscript, If the Ice Had Held, chosen by judge Benjamin Percy. If the Ice Had Held is set against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains. Even families who seem normal on the surface have secrets, and for her entire life, Melanie Richardson’s family has hidden from her the story of her birth and her true parents. In 1974, she would have been a scandal in her parents’ small Colorado town—her mother, unwed and just fourteen, and her father, drowned when he tries to take a shortcut across the frozen river and the ice cracks. Thirty-five years later, as fire burns through the Rocky Mountains, the novel unravels a web of families and strangers interconnected by tragedy and deceit. And just when everyone is finally feeling pretty calm, a car accident threatens to expose them all. If The Ice Had Held will be published by SFWP on May 1, 2019.
Fox is the author of The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories (Press 53, 2014) and the novel The Pull of It (Underground Voices, 2016). She lives in Denver. Find Fox online at her website and follow her on Twitter @WendyJeanFox.
In her interview with the Santa Fe Writers Project’s Monica Prince, Fox outlines her work-life-writing balance and the unique creative space she occupies as a writer working in the tech world.
Monica Prince: Where are you from? Where do you live now?
Wendy J. Fox: I am originally from Tonasket, Washington, a very small town on the eastern side of the Cascade mountain range. When I’m describing it to people, I say, Go to the middle of the state. Then go north by car for about two hours. If you get to Canada, you went a smidge too far. People think gray Seattle skies when they think of Washington, but the east side of the state is high desert, lots of sunshine, and rural farmlands.
I have lived on both sides of the mountains in Washington, both pewter and glaring skies, but these days, I live in Denver. Frankly, it was a hard transition for me at first, but now that I’m cruising in on a decade of living in Colorado, I have come to really love it because there is a great deal that reminds me of my earliest home—big sky and mountains, cold and sunshine.
MP: What is your educational and work background? Have either of these had an impact on your relationship with writing?
WJF: I did an MFA and after that, I taught for a while, as one does. Post-MFA, I was working in higher ed, but I didn’t want to do a PhD, and I didn’t have a book, then. So, early on in teaching, I was hitting the ceiling of what education could be for me in terms of career. I was also looking around and seeing that there were some folks who figured out how to make good on adjuncting by translating this work into full-time gigs, but there were so many more who continued to string along semester-to-semester appointments. I think I was a good teacher, but I realized I would have to bank on being a statistical outlier if I were ever to get to full-time employment, and that did not feel like a smart choice.
To be clear, much of the heavy lifting in American education is shouldered by adjuncts. It’s a problem. There are extremely competent educators who are not being appropriately compensated and who, even in a highly professional career, have far too much instability.
When I left higher ed, I was living in Seattle, which has a robust tech economy. I was lucky enough to land a job at a company that was still willing to take chances—I really had very little experience outside of the classroom. This was the mid-2000s. I’ve been in tech ever since, and it comes with its own hurdles. The hours can be long and the work itself intellectually and emotionally taxing, just like teaching.
I’ve talked about this before, but what moving into a corporate gig gave me turned out to be unexpected. When I took my first tech job, I was pretty sure I was selling out. Yet, as the months moved on, I realized that the work was actually highly enabling in terms of writing. I was using less of the part of my brain I needed for writing in Corporate Land as compared to education, and my life was not as tenuously tied to the academic calendar. Over a decade in, I have more control over my work schedule than I would have if I was still in education, though that’s not a criticism of my peers and others who have stayed.
Writing has been a lifeline for me, and I don’t have pressure to publish to get tenure or my next appointment—my writing is divorced from my wage-work, and this feels correct to me because it gives me the freedom to work on what’s important to me and not have it tethered to other necessities of life, like paying the rent.
MP: How did you first get involved with writing? What does your writing practice look like?
WJF: How I got involved in writing and my writing process are inextricably linked: I always wrote, from my earliest memories of being able to put pen to paper, as a way to process. I still write to process.
My practice itself is small bites. I wrote the first draft of If the Ice Had Held over a year, 150 words at a time, every night for 365 days. That gave me about 55,000 words of a super messy draft. The completed book is closer to 76,000 words, after working through fragmentation and revisions. Yet, it was a start, something to go on. The manuscript today is very different than the initial draft, but I still keep that writing goal of 150ish words a day.
So many of us who are compelled to create are constrained by time and the randomization of modern life. Family, jobs, life—all of this gets in the way of writing or other creative pursuits. I’m not willing to give up my family and friends, not in a position to give up my job, and not emotionally prepared to abandon my writing life.
I am good at many things: I am good at my corporate job, I am good at nurturing my friends and family, and I am good at protecting my time so I can chip away at my pages. I am a good reader. I am also a reasonably good gardener. This means I am bad at other things. For example, I am bad at going to the grocery store. I am bad at attending the gym. I am okay at the beginnings of household tasks like washing clothes (I mean really, a machine does it), but very bad at seeing these tasks through, like putting everything away.
One learns to accept the good with the bad, to prioritize.
MP: What are you working on now?
WJF: Right now, I am working on two projects. In no particular order, Project 1 is a collection of linked short stories set in an office that revolve around a series of coworkers. Project 2 is a novel kicked off by a school shooting. The struggle I am having with both is the feeling of the topics being so ordinary. Understandable for #1, heartbreaking for #2.
MP: What is your job other than writing?
WJF: I’ve never been only a writer as my job. I will say, in the interview process for my first corporate job, I used a published piece of creative nonfiction in my portfolio. While it was not really what they wanted, it was what I had. There’s crossover. My arts education continues to influence my corporate life, and my writing life draws on my corporate experience.
I go back and forth on if I could really write full-time (this is a question that is ignoring any financial efficacy). I know I could fill up the days with sentences, but could I be as productive without the same external pressures I have now? Could I write only what I want if I was worried about turning in, worried about getting paid? I’m not sure I could.
There is no correct answer to the question of how writers figure out their living. Some folks string it together with teaching and grants and residencies; some (like me) have a completely different livelihood; some have family support; some land enough contracts to make it work.
Most of the writers I know and interact with are doing something else to pay the bills, from teaching to temping. Some of them are struggling; some of them are comfortable. For me, it comes down to feeling productive as a general position. No matter what your work is, whether it’s art work, wage work, or family work (like parenting and caretaking), or other work like farming or stockbroking or whatever, it has to fall correctly in your life.
MP: Why did you decide to enter the Literary Award Contest with SFWP? What do you plan to do with the prize money? How do you think submitting to contests impacts your future writing life?
WJF: The thing I worry about with contests is the financial barrier for emerging and young writers. There’s an incredible amount of opportunity with contests, but the time when coughing up 30 to 50 bucks was out of reach does not feel that far in the past to me. Winning a contest—I’ve won two—can be fuel, is fuel, but when I look at it holistically over the years, I’m really probably still in the red on contests. I completely understand that contest fees give small presses cash they need to operate and provide checks to contest winners, and I think in the era of crowdsourcing, most indie authors are okay with this. Still, I wonder if there was a manuscript better than mine from a writer who couldn’t afford the fee. Maybe yes, maybe no.
Whenever a writer is submitting, she must look at the list, from agent to mid-list to micro-press to journal. The question I always ask when submitting is, How would I feel about being in the company of these other writers? For my debut short story collection, the press had published a book that held one of my favorite stories of all time; for my first novel, the press had a history of taking on risky projects.
I submitted to SFWP because I know and read these books, and even before the imprint was in play, I was familiar with the contest winners.
Regarding the contest money, I’ll save it for writerly things. It’s nice to have it in the bank.
MP: What advice do you have for writers just starting to make this their priority?
WJF: The MFA program that I went to (at Eastern Washington University, a regional school, but one of the old guard when it comes to MFA) was extremely focused on putting your ass in the damn chair and getting the work done. In the early 2000s, we were thinking less about platforms and promotion, as we were not as fully entrenched in the internet age, but I think it’s good advice: if you want to be a writer, then write. It’s a fact that you’ll never get a book in print if you don’t finish one. Writing, just like any kind of creating, is really very hard. You’ll be wheat instead of chaff just by finishing a project. And from there, all doors are open.
SFWP is thrilled to publish If the Ice Had Held and can’t wait to share it with the world. Congratulations, Wendy J. Fox!
Monica Prince is the 2017-2018 Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. She received her MFA in poetry at Georgia College & State University, and her BA in English Creative Writing at Knox College. She currently writes and reviews for the Santa Fe Writers Project, as well as reviews and edits for Aquarius Press. Her work can be found in MadCap Review, The Sula Collective, The Shade Journal, TRACK//FOUR, and others. Her choreopoem, Sestina: A Black Woman in Six Parts, will premiere in April 2018 in Selinsgrove, PA, where she teaches, writes, and performs.