When it comes to putting together their first short story collections, some writers start out with a theme or a plan and stick to it. Then there’s writers like Izzy Wasserstein, who, in assembling hers, All The Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From (paperback), found that a theme emerged anyway. In the following email interview, Wasserstein discusses what inspired and influenced these stories, and why she ran with the emergent theme as opposed to running away from it.
To start, is there an underlying or obvious theme to All The Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From?
My writer-brain rarely thinks in terms of theme. Most of the time, my understanding of a story’s themes emerges as I write and revise. So I’m as surprised as anyone to say that there is a theme in this collection. For me, these stories are about how marginalized people and communities work to survive and thrive in difficult times. By the time I was putting the collection together, I knew that’s what I was writing, even though I don’t think I ever consciously set out to do so.
What was it about this theme that made you want to go with it, as opposed to backing away from it?
One of the pleasures I find in reading short fiction collections is exploring the author’s obsessions. Once I realized what I was doing, what connective tissue held these stories together, I wanted to see what else I could do with it.
I suspect I’m not the only one obsessing over how best to respond to threats like the rising tide of authoritarianism around the globe or the existential threat of climate change. I certainly don’t have the answers, but I hope these stories contribute to the ongoing dialog on those subjects. I want to be part of that conversation, and if I’m very lucky, maybe my work will encourage others to write about these questions.
Aside from fitting the theme, what other parameters did the stories in All The Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From have to fit? Like, did they have to fit a certain length, did you only include ones that were relatively new…?
These stories represent a selection of the work I’ve published over the last five years. My first published story (“Unplaces: An Atlas Of Non-Existence”) is here, as is the one that’s most recently published as I’m writing this (“Everything The Sea Takes, It Returns”). As I tried to decide what to include, I realized I wanted a certain movement in the collection, and that eventually took the form of its three sections, which I think of as being about loss, resistance, and community, respectively.
There were hard choices to be made, and some of my personal favorite stories didn’t feel like the right fit here. I also left out most of my flash fiction, because it felt a little out of place. My amazing editor, dave ring, guided me through the final selections, and I think it’s a more coherent collection as a result.
What genres do the stories in All The Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From represent?
There’s a little bit of everything here: “hard” science fiction, second-world fantasy, cyberpunk, even a dash of horror. One story takes place in a city built on a giant spiderweb. One takes place entirely on a space station whose only occupant is an AI. I’m never happier than when I’m exploring a new genre or story form.
In possibly-related news: I have ADHD.
Now, All The Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From is your first collection of stories, but you’ve been writing them for years, and have also released two books of poetry: This Ecstasy They Call Damnation and When Creation Falls. Are there any writers who you see as having a big influence on specific stories in Hometowns but not on your style as a whole?
I love this question, and this way of thinking about influences. While I think Jorge Luis Borges influenced my work lots of ways, you can particularly see the influences of “The Aleph” and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” in “Unplaces.” Theodora Goss’s “Cimmeria: From The Journal Of Imaginary Anthropology” was also a direct influence on that story, as was Sofia Samatar’s “Ogres Of East Africa,” one of my all-time favorites.
“Their Eyes Like Dead Lamps” owes a lot to Kelly Link, an author I deeply admire, but whose work doesn’t share much in common with the other stories in this collection.
“Dead At The Feet Of A God” owes its existence not to a short story, but to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s observation that “…resistance must be its own reward, since resistance, at least within the lifespan of the resistors, almost always fails.”
“Shadows Of The Broken, The Hungry, The Transformed” arose in part out of my obsession with R. B. Lemberg’s masterful novella The Four Profound Weaves.
How about poetry? How did writing it, and of course reading it, influence the stories in All The Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From?
Poetry is a less direct influence on these stories, because I write fiction in part to explore ideas in ways I struggle to manage in poetry. But my fascination with mysticism (as seen in “The Grass Bows Down, The Pilgrims Walk Lightly” and “The Crafter At The Web’s Heart”) is shaped by W. B. Yeats (my problematic fave), and I learned a lot about character and motivation through dramatic monologues by poets like Robert Browning, Ai, and Lisa D. Chavez.
While I can’t point to specific stories on this one, Eavan Boland’s “Quarantine” and “That the Science Of Cartography Is Limited” are poems that are deeply rooted in the ways I think about both poetry and fiction, and it’s safe to say these stories wouldn’t exist had I not encountered Boland’s work.
What about non-literary influences; are any of the stories in All The Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From influenced by movies, TV shows, or games?
“Hopper In The Frying Pan” owes a huge debt to my long-time love of Blade Runner (the film, but also the very cool and under-appreciated computer-game adaptation). “The Good Mothers’ Home For Wayward Girls” is heavily influenced by Guillermo del Toro’s films. Several of these stories were influenced by Portrait Of A Lady On Fire. “The Crafter At The Web’s Heart” owes a lot of visual inspiration to my long-time love of horror films in general. And the cartoons “She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power” and “Steven Universe” both provided light, kindness and hope that I’ve relied upon in writing these stories — and getting through the past few years more generally.
And what about your “variety of animal companions”? How do you think they — both individually and collectively — influenced the stories in All The Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From?
Currently my spouse and I have a dog, Arya, who looks very much like a mastiff but at roughly half the size, and two cats. Ripley thought she was the boss of the house until our pandemic kitten, Fiona, showed up, and now Fiona runs things.
Ripley, Arya, Fiona
But non-human animals don’t feature a lot in this collection, I think because no one who knows me would ever believe I’d let anything too bad happen to animal companions in a story. But I like to think they shaped these stories even so, by giving me ways of thinking about animality and alien intelligences. And maybe most importantly, when I’ve gone through tough times, they’ve been there to provide comfort and love, and when I’m feeling a bit too good about myself, they’ll remind me that I might not be much more than an ambulatory can-opener.
Hollywood loves turning short stories into films. Do you think any of the stories in All The Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From could work as a movie?
One story in this collection has drawn interest from Hollywood, and it’s certainly the one I think of as least cinematic: “Requiem Without Sound.” But the story I think best suited to be a movie is “The Crafter At The Web’s Heart.”
If that happened, who would you want them to get for the cast?
I’d love to see Zendaya [Spider-Man: No Way Home] as Danae, [Our Flag Means Death‘s] Vico Ortiz as Sorcha, and Oscar Issac [Moon Knight] as Pliny.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about All The Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From?
I wanted the stories in this collection to be both honest about the failings of humans and humanity, and to work to avoid hopelessness and nihilism. If you’re looking for stories that acknowledge the horrors people are capable of but also thinks a lot about how we might do better, I think you’ll find a lot to like here.
Finally, if someone enjoys All The Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From, which of your poetry collections would you suggest they read next, and what short story collection of someone else’s would you suggest they read after that?
Start with When Creation Falls. It’s my most recent collection and engages with speculative themes in a way that readers of All The Hometowns will enjoy.
It’s hard for me to imagine anyone who would pick up this collection hasn’t already read Sarah Pinsker’s Sooner Or Later Everything Falls Into The Sea, but if not, that’s a must-read. Pinsker writes gorgeous sentences, moving stories, and approaches her fiction with such nuance and grace that each of her works features new and wonderful delights. Sofia Samatar’s Tender is one of those books I feel everyone should read. It’s lovely, challenging, and expertly crafted. Charlie Jane Anders’ stories, including those in Even Greater Mistakes, consistently surprise and delight me. Anyone who likes my work should acquaint themselves with The Trans Space Octopus Congregation by Bogi Takács.
While most readers of your blog are probably already familiar with Octavia Butler’s novels, her short stories are complex, moving, and often deeply troubling. Bloodchild And Other Stories should be on everyone’s reading list.