Interview: Alyssa Wong

Alyssa Wong is an exciting writer who burst onto the scene in 2014 with “The Fisher Queen,” a story that was nominated for the Nebula, Shirley Jackson, and World Fantasy Awards. Since then, her short fiction continues to captivate and challenge readers. She dances between fantasy, science fiction, and horror, and isn’t afraid to mix all of those elements into a single story. Alyssa’s beautiful prose and attention to detail is layered on top of rock–solid stories and themes that make readers catch their breaths and scrabble to find their footing. There is a palpable sense of anticipation when it comes to her work, and we, along with all of her fans, cannot wait to see what comes next.

Uncanny Magazine: The small touches in this story are incredibly evocative and tell an entire story by their very presence: the bottle of laudanum, the spitting out of fur and bone, the oppressing heat. Are you a big picture writer or one for whom the small details are at the forefront and demand to be woven into the larger narrative?

Alyssa Wong: When I’m building a story, I almost always start with character and a single, bright image. For “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay,” I had the image of a small, feral Cinderella crouching by the ashes of a fireplace, with reanimated dead birds keeping watch overhead. Next, I think, Where could this take place? and from there, I piece together character motivations, then the action of the story. And as I write, I try to pack in salient, sensory details that are very specific to the setting and the characters. For me, the characters and their arcs are the most important aspects of the story, but the way I choose to make those aspects very personal is by picking out those moments and textures which only those characters, in that moment, would notice.

Uncanny Magazine: You’ve stated that you grew up in a desert, an environment that makes an impression. What was it like revisiting this specific geographical space? Did it take you to mental spaces that you didn’t anticipate?

Alyssa Wong: I did grow up in the desert! It’s a stark, painfully gorgeous place, and I miss its geography a lot; the longer I’m away, the more I find myself writing about it. I think that many people think of the desert as ugly and barren, but there’s so much life and hidden beauty in the wildlife, in the plant life, in the landscape. Writing about it is nostalgic and very bittersweet; it reminds me of my childhood and the reasons I love the land, but also the reasons why I chose to leave the Southwest.

Uncanny Magazine: “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” twists friendship and family into new and deeply affecting ways. While they are universal themes in fiction, why are they important to you? What do you hope to express by visiting these specific themes?

Alyssa Wong: I’m always interested in how relationships impact groups of people. How people navigate the issues of family and friendship is very telling, and a way to gain insight into a character’s motivations and inner life. No one exists in a void—and if they do, in fiction, that isolation, lack of access to relationships, and necessary self–reliance are also key to understanding that character.

I’m always writing about family and friendships. I feel that the people closest to you are the ones who have the most agency to empower or destroy you, and with the least effort. Because of this, I’m interested in seeing how those relationships play off of each other, and how characters either fight against or embrace their own vulnerabilities.

Uncanny Magazine: The visceral nature of this story is gripping. You feel the pain of loss, of the change that Ellis both resists and embraces, as well as the longing for family, security, and love. When writing about such strong feelings, what types of emotional reservoirs are required? How do you tap into that without draining yourself or heading into an unhealthy emotional space?

Alyssa Wong: It takes me a long time to write stories, and oftentimes, that’s because it takes a long time for me to parse out my feelings regarding what I want to write about. I also write about issues and themes that are already on my mind, or have been for a long time. For “You’ll Surely Drown If You Stay,” I knew I wanted to write a bleak Western, but I also knew that I wanted to write about interpersonal violence, complicated families (chosen vs. blood families), and friendships between people who would die for each other. These are all issues that have been on my mind for various reasons for the past year, and figuring out how to incorporate them into my writing helps me come to a better understanding of them as well.

It’s easier to ease, slowly and gently, at your own pace, into that headspace. And oftentimes, I find that I’ve already been inhabiting those spaces and negotiating those issues for a good while by the time I get around to writing. In terms of not burning out, it helps to have other things outside of writing that make you feel good—for me, that’s cooking, painting nails, playing video games. Take care of yourself and take the breaks you need.

Uncanny Magazine: The injustices in this story are legion, touching on class, gender, and economics. Do you feel that fiction is the place to deliberately explore these issues or do you think exploring these issues is a by–product of a good story?

Alyssa Wong: I absolutely feel that fiction is the place to deliberately explore the issues that matter to you. The best fiction both entertains and challenges, and I write about the things that I can’t stop thinking about. I’m always interested in interrogating the status quo and exploring the ways we navigate sexuality, gender, and agency.

I think that the most compelling fiction acts in conversation with pertinent social and technological issues, interfacing story with cultural, socioeconomical context. And I personally believe that when there is a conscious authorial decision to engage with those issues, you open up the opportunity to make your stories so much richer and more resonant than they would be otherwise.

Uncanny Magazine: In a Locus Magazine interview, you stated that you have a certain type of story you like, things that you crave in a story, such as weird biology, ghosts, friendships, deep–seated regrets. When you’re writing, do you feel that you are chasing that perfect story you wish existed?

Alyssa Wong: I definitely have a list of story elements, themes, and forms that I’m a huge sucker for. Ghost stories? Queer love stories? Stories with vivid, robust prose? Sign me up. But I don’t think there is a perfect story that I’m reaching for—the only thing that I focus on when I’m writing is making that story, in that moment, as good as it can be. And as soon as I’m happy with one of my stories, I’m searching for a way to make the next one better. I’ll keep writing until I’m satisfied—and my secret is that I am never, ever satisfied.

Uncanny Magazine: It feels like we are in a renaissance of short fiction—the number of outlets for short stories is growing and novellas are becoming the hot new trend (again). What is it about short fiction that speaks to you?

Alyssa Wong: I think short fiction is beautiful. I grew up reading novels, but the art of short fiction provides the opportunity to create something condensed and intensified by the small amount of space allowed by the form. All of the elements have to be really tight and masterful for a short story to work. It’s very difficult to do! Short fiction forces me to focus in on aspects that aren’t necessarily my strengths, and putting each new story together is another step toward honing my skills. It’s like a series of puzzles. I always feel like I’m learning something new and striving to write something better than the stories I’ve written before. That’s a huge part of the appeal for me.

When I read short fiction, I look for the elements that inspire me and make me want to create: elegant structure, a confident voice, vivid and imaginative imagery, and bold vision. The best short fiction showcases and highlights these traits. And of course, I’m always studying new stories for tips and tricks to fold into my own writing.

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you so much, Alyssa, for talking to us about your fantastic story!

Deborah Stanish

Deborah Stanish is the co–editor of the Hugo Award–nominated Chicks Unravel Time: Women Journey Through Every Season of Doctor Who and Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon by the Women Who Love Them. She’s had essays published in Chicks Dig Time Lords; Time, Unincorporated Volumes II and III; Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers; Famous Monsters of Filmland; Apex Magazine, and The Liverpool University Journal of Science Fiction, Film, and Television. Deborah is also the moderator of the Hugo Award–nominated podcast Verity! where six women from around the globe debate and discuss Doctor Who.

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