Izzy Wasserstein talks about All the Hometowns You Can't Stay Away From

Izzy Wasserstein joins me to talk about her new short story collection, All the Hometowns You Can't Stay Away From.

closeup of four figures from the cover of Izzy Wasserstein's collection.
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In this episode of the OMG Julia! Podcast, Izzy Wasserstein joins me to talk about her new short story collection, All the Hometowns You Can't Stay Away From, which is coming out from Neon Hemlock on July 26th, 2022. You can order the collection directly from Neon Hemlock, or from the bookseller of your choice! You can also check out Izzy's website, and follow her on Twitter!

You can listen to the podcast directly on this page, or subscribe through the podcatcher of your choice. A full transcript of the episode appears below if you'd like to read along.

Cover for All the Hometowns You Can't Stay Away From with art by Vivian Magaña.

Transcript

Julia
Welcome to the OMG Julia! Podcast, where we discuss creative lives and processes. I'm your host, Julia Rios, and with me today is special guest Izzy Wasserstein. Welcome, Izzy.

Izzy
Thank you so much, Julia! I'm delighted to be here. I am a queer and trans woman, I write speculative fiction, I teach English at a public university in the American midwest, and my debut short story collection, All the Hometowns You Can't Stay Away From is coming out on July 26th from Neon Hemlock.

Julia
Yes, thank you so much for being here to talk to us about that. I wanted to start by asking you about how you got your start writing short fiction, and what made you stick with it long enough to come up with so many stories that you have a whole collection. What's your journey toward building that been like?

Izzy
I actually studied poetry in school. That was my beginning as a writer, and I really enjoyed doing that, and my poetry always had a speculative tilt towards it I think because that's so much of what I'd read growing up. But when I'd been doing that for a while, I started to realize that there were kinds of things I wanted to explore that I didn't think my poetry was well suited for, and I didn't really have an outlet for that until I heard Sarah Pinsker read at the University Of Kansas in 2015.

A light bulb went off for me, and I was like, oh speculative fiction can do this thing, and it could do it in this way that I was really excited about. And that got me thinking about well, what can it do for me? What kind of stories am I eager to tell? I sort of accidentally I think threw myself into it completely and in 2017 I attended Clarion West and not only learned a lot but also made a lot of friends that really helped me feel like I could have a home in this community, in the speculative fiction writing community. And so that's really helped me when I've had times when I was depressed or just too busy to work or whatever. I always had both my interest and the community to come back to.

Julia
Wow, That's great. So you started in poetry. Do you still write poetry?

Izzy
Off and on. I haven't found as much inspiration for poetry over the last few years, but it's not something I want to divorce myself from. It's just not what my brain is doing these days for whatever reason.

Julia
Absolutely. I understand that. As someone who writes both fiction and poetry, I feel like a kind of get into one gear and it's and sort of like okay I'm doing that one thing now.

Izzy
Right, It's really different. At least for me, the brain space it takes up is very different, one from the other. I think for me, it's as different from fiction as the way that writing short and long fiction feels different to me.

Julia
Yeah, so do you write long or do you write mostly short?

Izzy
Until recently I have written exclusively short. I had one currently trunked novel that I wrote mainly to see if I could generate 90,000 words on the same topic, and I have a novella that's out looking for a home right now, and I'm currently working on a novel. So I am sort of trying to make space in my brain for longer form projects as well as short form.

Julia
So how do you find, for you personally, that difference between poetry and short fiction and long fiction? What are the different ways that your brain engages, and are there different ways that you have to get into creative mode for those?

Izzy
This is tricky because they definitely feel different to me in terms of how my brain responds to them. But I've never been sure I could really articulate how that difference exists or where it exists. I think for poetry, the thing that I love about it is that I can hold more or less a whole poem in my head at the same time. So that if I'm working on a poem and I'm out doing something, I'm doing chores or I'm out for a walk or whatever, I can ponder that poem and really hold the whole project in my head.

With short fiction, I can get close to that, but there's there's too much going on for me to really have that. So It's more about finding ways to separate into manageable chunkd and then figuring out how to fit those chunks together, whether those chunks be like character or images I want to explore or themes or whatever.

And I really am sure I don't know for long fiction, except that I have to do so much work just to keep in my head where I'm headed and the various things I want to touch on and all of that. Like I have outlines and character bios and just random notes that I leave to myself being like "hey don't forget about this element that you want to do". My work at Longer lengths is pretty chaotic, but then again my work is my work process is pretty chaotic anyway.

Julia
Yeah, so let's talk a little bit about your work process. What does a typical writing session look like for you?

Izzy
It varies quite a bit. I've always been envious and a little skeptical of writers who have like a single process that always works, or that they always fall back on. I think part of that is that my day job requires me to be in the cycle of an academic year, so there will be times when weeks will go by and I will do no writing on my own projects. I'm grading, I'm prepping for classes, I'm trying to do enough things to destress between those activities... that kind of thing. And then I will find some time and get quite a bit done hopefully. So during the semester, it's like, oh I have an hour and I have a gathered enough focus that I'm just going to sit down and work on one of my projects for a little while.

And then in breaks between semesters, I try to get as much writing done as I can. So I think that, for example, this June was my most productive writing month ever. I had a big block of time that was just for writing and so I just spewed out the words that I hadn't had a chance to write during the course of the year

Julia
Wow. Well congratulations on your most productive writing month.

Izzy
Well thank you. I have to revisit it and see if I like the words that I wrote, but at least I got lots of them done.

Julia
I mean I always say you can't edit what doesn't exist. So it's a win.

Izzy
Yeah, you need to come and tell my students that because I try to convince them of that, but it's not always an easy sell.

Julia
That's fair enough. Okay, let's talk about the process of putting together this specific collection so you have at this point sold several stories to lots of different science fiction and fantasy venues. How did you choose to make a collection in the first place? Did you pitch this to Neon Hemlock, or did they come to you? And then once you did that, how did you go about putting it together?

Izzy
It was a a very fun process for me. In many ways pulling it together was more fun than the actual writing, which is frequently stressful. But like playing with different tables of contents and stuff was something I really found deeply enjoyable. I had a friend suggest to me that I probably had enough stories that I should start looking at whether I had a viable collection that I felt good about. And so I did the nerd thing of like I started a spreadsheet and I just took a look at every story that I published and its word count and went to see where I was at. And I realized I have lots of things to choose from here.

What I did first was just like, which are the stories that are non-negotiable for me? That not only do I love but I feel like are my babies, particularly? To use an example, "Unplaces: an Atlas of Non-Existence" is one of those stories that I think was well and kindly received by people, but that I also sense that I love more than most readers do, and so I'm like well if it's my collection, this story is being included.

I think my original draft had way more stories than the one that's coming out. And part of what I did was because there was a lot of flash fiction and flash adjacent stuff that I initially included, but it felt to me like those stories were breaking up the collection in a way that wasn't helping me. It's very hard while reading a collection to pause on a 600 word thing and then jump into a 7,000 word thing.

I have seen collections that do that very well, but it just didn't feel right, so I ended up pairing back to twelve or thirteen stories, and when I had that ready, I realized that those stories were suggesting an organization. I don't think I say this anywhere in the book itself, but my mental map of the book is that the first section deals with grief and trauma, the second section deals with radicalization, and the third section is about community. And so I was really pleased to find it came together that way and felt internally coherent to me.

And then I had asked communities I was part of where should I consider sending this. And I put together a list of places and sent it out, and dave reached out to me and said, "Hey, if you are interested, I'd love to consider it for Neon Hemlock as well." And I'm a huge fan of Neon Hemlock and worked with dave before, so I eagerly jumped in with that and have really loved working with dave. He's made the collection stronger. With his input a couple of new stories came into the collection, including previously unpublished stories that he and I both really believe in. So it's been a wonderful experience, and I'm so delighted to have worked with him on this project.

Julia
Wow, that's great and of course, dave in this case is dave ring, the publisher over at Neon Hemlock, who is really a great editor and a writer as well.

Izzy
Yes, he absolutely is, and, like you, someone who I think of as not just being super talented, but who's just actively doing a lot to make the community a better place.

Julia
Yeah I agree. So let's talk a little bit about those unpublished stories, or the stories that are new for the collection. Did you write anything specifically for this collection, or was it all stuff that you had but just hadn't been published yet?

Izzy
I did not write anything specifically for the collection. I didn't feel any obvious gaps where I was like I need a story that does this or that changes the tone in this way. So what I did was I looked at what the unpublished things I had that I thought, oh I feel pretty good about this, and sent them to dave, and we talked over them together and talked about which ones might fit well.

The one that I'm really excited to get people's eyes on that hasn't appeared anywhere yet is "The Case of the Soane Museum Thefts" which is a supernatural mystery about someone stealing artifacts from the weirdest and most fascinating museum in London. I had a lot of fun writing it, and it was one of those stories that I feel leveled me up, that I had to learn new skills to pull it off. That was really exciting.

And then "Hopper in the Frying Pan" which is a cyberpunk story about a trans person who has been framed for a series of horrible crimes and is having to deal with both the cops and the person who actually committed the crimes.

I think both of those stories are going to be good fits especially for people who come into the collection already interested in my work or my thematic concerns.

Julia
Yeah, so in the story notes at the back of the book – this is actually a fun addition to the collection that I don't see in every collection, but in the in the back of this collection, you actually wrote little DVD bonus extras for every story – and in "The Case of the Soane Museum Thefts" you say that's a real museum. I had never heard of this before. How did you find out about it?

Izzy
A colleague of mine, a history professor, found out that I was going to London and knew that I was the kind of nerd who was going to go to the museums. Museums are often problematic, and British museums are exceptionally problematic, but despite that I still find them weird and fascinating. And he said if you're going to go to any museums you have to go to Sir John Soane's museum. It's the home of this 19th century architect who got very very rich and like at one point for example, the British Museum declined to buy and Egyptian sarcophagus, so he bought it privately and put on a big party for it, which is both like fascinating to me and obviously deeply screwed up, right? In all the ways that colonialism is screwed up. But he turned his house into a museum that he left to the country partially because I think he wanted to leave it as a legacy, and partially because he didn't want his son to inherit it.

Julia
Oh my gosh. Okay.

Izzy
Yeah, so family drama's in there, and it's incredibly eclectic. It's this beautifully designed house where the skylight on the top floor illuminates the crypt in the basement. It is a little out of the way and not super well known and it is the None place where I'm like if you like museums at all. Ah, and you're ever near London get to it because it's so weird.

Julia
Yeah. So about "Hopper in the Frying Pan" which is the other story that you mentioned being unpublished before this. That one's a lot about surveillance and sort of the the culture of of surveillance and big tech coming for us. How long ago did you write that? How long has that been brewing for you?

Izzy
I wrote it several years ago now. It's a story that I really love that didn't get a lot of traction. I think most writers know that feeling of like, why did this story sell immediately at this one not seem to find a home or whatever. When I wrote it, I thought of it as sort of like very near future. We're living in a moment where people who have periods are being advised to be very careful about menstrual cycle trackers.

Julia
Yeah.

Izzy
Because the government could use that surveillance to try to punish them for things it perceives as them having abortions. One of the things that happens in that story is the narrator mentions that they were outed as trans when they got like advertising email sent to their parents saying what to do when your child is trans.

Julia
Yeah.

Izzy
And those things are already happening, right? Parents getting emails for diapers, and that's how they find out that their daughter is pregnant, for example, right? And that's just a predictive algorithm saying, oh these things get purchased more when someone's pregnant. So probably this person's pregnant. Let's send them ads about new baby clothes or whatever. And it's just a horrifying Conflux of the worst things about capitalism and the worst things about authoritarian governments, and I just am haunted by it.

Julia
Yeah, I mean, I feel like we're already in that future for sure. I was reading an account the other day about a woman who bought a couple of pregnancy tests and then received a box of formula. And she was not pregnant. She had had to take pregnancy tests per doctor's orders for a health reason that she didn't want to disclose, but she was not planning to have children, and she was not pregnant, but received formula in the mail as a sample package.

Izzy
Wow that is terrifying.

Julia
Yeah, I hear so many things about people worrying that if you're using video doorbells, that they're they're actually recording something like up to seventy feet away from the doorbell. So people's conversations as they're passing by on the street can be picked up by your doorbell, and then police can actually take those records.

Izzy
Yeah, it's awful, especially because the counter use of that, to be able to easily record what law enforcement does, is very often under threat from authorities who are changing the laws to further protect law enforcement. So those technologies are being used against the populace and being actively tried to prevent from us using it to like demonstrate when we have been harmed by the state.

I keep hoping that I will write stories that are too pessimistic about where we're heading, and the opposite keeps happening. Like I don't want to sound like this collection is like super bleak because I don't think of it that way, but it is pretty skeptical of the near future being anything but really rough, especially for marginalized people. I read the news and it's just right there horrifying me every day.

Julia
Yeah, okay so let's talk a little bit about something a little more cheerful.

Izzy
Yes, please.

Julia
I want to talk about the stories in the same world, "The Crafter at the Web's Heart" and "Blades, Stones, and the Weight of Centuries".  

"Blades, Stones, and the Weight of Centuries" you say in the notes in the back that you want to be the sword lesbian story you want to see in the world. One question I wanted to ask was is that the inspiration for the cover art for this collection?

Izzy
I think it was part of it. I think the title story "All the Hometowns You Can't Stay Away From" was the sort of the key inspiration for that in terms of like people who look like they could be versions of the same person. But I specifically asked that the images on the cover be a mix of fantasy and science fiction tropes. So like one of the people on the cover has a sword and another one has a glowing like cyborg eye. I really wanted to get the sense that, even if not all of these stories are literally in the same world, that they're all being pulled from these ideas about identity and personhood and you know transness and queerness. I would love to tell you that I explicitly said give me a sword lesbian on the cover, but I didn't. Although in the future I'm going to.

Julia
Excellent. So tell me about the sword Lesbian you wish to see in the world.

Izzy
One of the things I want is to get us to a place where it is unremarkable to have queer and otherly marginalized protagonists who can be as problematic and messy as cis het white men get to be in our stories, and that's allowed, right? I feel like there's a lot of pressure on, for example, trans creators to not tell stories about problematic trans people because it can be weaponized against us by people acting in bad faith.

I get that, and I understand that concern. I really am terrified of writing things that do harm to my communities, but at the same time I want messy queer people in my stories. I want to read about them. And so like the sword lesbian that I want to see in the world, as evidenced by that story, is someone who maybe has decided that they have this narrow thing that they can do and they're going to do it no matter the consequences, and that's all they're going to do no matter the consequences. Right? And so thinking that like they can solve a problem – in this case, she could solve a problem with the tip of her blade and that's going to be the end of it. And (among other things) feelings get in the way, which tends to happen in my stories because that's a thing that I love, is when feelings get in the way.

Julia
Yeah, okay, so let's talk a little bit about "The Crafter at the Web's Heart" which you say, "Despite Danae not being explicitly trans, this is perhaps the most trans story I've written." And I'm wondering if you want to talk a little bit about how trans identity comes into your writing in general, and also why one specific story would feel the most trans to you.

Izzy
This was a story that I wrote in 2017, and I hadn't yet figured out what I wanted to say, how I wanted to approach trans characters specifically, but I had recognized that I wanted them in my work. And I was really frustrated by a line of argument that I still hear from time to time that says if you have a magic system in your fantasy, the magic has to come at a cost. And I recognize why there's narrative utility there, but that's also such a capitalist way of thinking, right? That the only things you can have are things that you purchase, whether it's through money or through study or harm or whatever, right? And so I knew I wanted to talk about that, or to have a story that addressed that.

So in that story, in that world, anybody can do magic. But if you specialize, you start to transform into whatever the kind of magic that you specialize in is. So someone who really likes throwing fireballs eventually will become like living flame. Somebody who does magic based on books will eventually become a book. And most of the characters in the world that we see treat that as sort of an inherently bad thing, but part of the arc for my protagonist there is realizing that her own transformation can suit her needs and can allow her to be her truest self.

Which I think is a thing that a lot of even really supportive and well-meaning cis people still don't get about trans identity, right? The process of external transformation for trans people, not all of whom of course choose to have external transformation, but those who do it's often about making their external self that other people see match or be legible to their internal sense of self.

So to my way of thinking Danae is a trans character, in that she's someone who has embraced a identity that is very different from the one she was assigned at birth, even if the idea of her being trans doesn't ever explicitly get mentioned. Whereas most of my stories with trans people, they're often just ... the things about them that are most interesting to me are other things that they're doing, because you know I want trans people to be as unremarkable in a story as cis people are.

Julia
Yeah, absolutely. But I think it's really interesting that you dive into that specific question of identity because one of the things that I see coming up over and over again and even something you mentioned at the beginning of this interview is that one of the big themes that you come back to in these stories is a question of identity. And I think in the title story "All The Hometowns You Can't Stay Away From" it's very much exploring the different ways that a person could exist, the different versions of that person, and the different ways that that person is them, I guess. So a question that I have for you there is do you think that your experience as a trans woman has made you really deeply question how identity happens for people in general?

Izzy
I really do, yeah. I find identity fascinating. I think so much of the fundamental things that make us who we are are contingent and sometimes even outside of our control. We know a lot now about how much the first couple years of someone's life shapes them, for example. Of how things like hormone balances in the womb can shape a person and just how vagaries like when and where you're born, right?

So I'm one of those trans people who figured it out fairly late, right? I was in well into my thirties before I realized or articulated to myself that I was trans. And like there's a version of me who grew up in a community that was less queerphobic than the middle America um evangelical christian community that I was raised in who might have figured it out much sooner. And I have no idea who she would be. I suspect there's a version of me who lived in a society that was more comfortable rejecting gender binaries who might identify like for example, as she/they or they/them.

You know, I really think that our brains are hardwired to make us think that the version of us we perceive is like the version of us, but speculative fiction lets you say well no, there's all these versions of me at different times in different places and those versions are fascinating and valid, even if they're not the one that I landed on. I'm not sure if that makes sense, but that's sort of how I have been thinking about these things.

Julia
No, absolutely. I really love multiple parallel universe stories.

Izzy
Obviously parallel universes are very well trod ground in speculative fiction. I feel like there's so much to be done with it, and you know as people who aren't just predominantly white men get to tell more of their stories, we're getting to see even more of the fun variations on a theme you can do with those kind of stories. It makes me very happy.

Julia
One of the things that I found when I was editing that story, that I found so interesting about it, and that made it feel so grounded, was the detail that is grounded in real world stuff. So like, you say even in the notes of this collection, like you grew up in Topeka, Kansas and this is set there and there are certain details that are actually drawn from the real place that you grew up in, and it has such a strong tie to that setting. Do you feel like it is necessary to include something that ties things together to ground a story?

Izzy
I think it is an amazing tool for a writer. I think giving people an anchor point is real useful. There's a reason why the outsider coming into a magical or technological community is such a common structure for a novel, right? It's so it makes it easy for us to follow along and learn about the setting through them. But I also don't think it's necessary. One of the stories in this collection began with – I wanted to see if I could break a fundamental rule of storytelling that a lot of people say is a fundamental rule: the idea that you have to have at least two characters interacting.

And so in "Requiem Without Sound" there are two characters in the story. Not only do they never directly interact, but they're not both alive at the same time. So one of them is only learning about the other through like recorded videos and you know part of the reason I wanted to do that is because I really believe that you can break any rule as long as you know, as long as you're doing it for a specific effect, right?

So sometimes I think stories really want to not give you anchor points, right? Not give you a thing to latch on to really revel in the otherness of the place, or of the prose, or whatever. But I also think that adds a significant degree of difficulty to a story, so approach with care, I suppose.

Julia
Yeah, I guess that makes a lot of sense. So I always give my subscribers a chance to ask some questions, and I have a couple. I would love to jump into those before we wrap up. One question is: as someone who's written a ton of short stories, a) have you ever experienced creative block? And b) what do you do to jump start creativity if you do feel like you're having a hard time getting started, if you're feeling sluggish or whatever?

Izzy
Yes, I definitely have experienced creative block. It happens frequently between creative block and self-doubt, I have a lot along those lines to deal with. And I make a point of talking about those things publicly because it's really important to me that people who also struggle with those things know that they're not alone.

There was a period really at the end of 2020 and stretching well into 2021 that I just felt creatively bankrupt, and it was really tough. I wish I had a "Here's how to fix it" answer for you. I can say that things that work for me are immersing myself in other people's creativity. Reading fiction, watching particularly exciting and affective TV or movies, talking with other writers about their projects or about ideas they're throwing around I find is a great way to get my brain to kick on.

I have found that you know I have a list of ideas that I keep, like a lot of writers do. I have lots of like started and never finished stories that I got stuck on or had to pick up another project or whatever, so like usually if I'm stuck somewhere I can be like okay I'm going to go do this other thing for a while and sometimes that takes the pressure off and gets me going again. It's not foolproof. Sometimes I'm like no this isn't happening today. I'm going to go play video games and hope it happens next time.

Julia
I think that that's fair. I think sometimes your brain just needs a break. So sometimes you do need to go play video games and come back next time.

Izzy
That's been my experience, certainly, is that you know you that it making writing feel more like punishment is not a recipe for my success.

Julia
Okay, so the second and last subscriber question for today is: do you have a favorite story? So like if someone was going to come to this collection. What would be your favorite story in it? Or is there a favorite story that you have of yours that's not in this collection?

Izzy
I think if you asked me on four consecutive days what my favorite story in this collection is, I would probably up with four separate answers. One that I'm really excited for people to read and that is particularly close to my heart is "Shadows of the Hungry, the Broken, the Transformed" which is the novelette that ends the collection.

It arose out of my thinking about how to cope with trauma and post-traumatic stress, which we've all been living with. I feel like often the world is sort of presenting like "well the pandemic's over and we can go back and everything is fine now" and you know obviously the pandemic is not over and on top of that, it's like no, we're still living with the side effects of these very difficult times. So that's a story that explores that question for me, and also talks about my deep dissatisfaction with elements of higher education, and has magical arts and crafts which make me very happy.

So that's one that I hope people will read and enjoy, because it's deeply meaningful to me and I really found it a joy to plan and write.

Julia
Awesome! Okay, everybody go out. You should buy Izzy's collection, All the Hometowns You Can't Stay Away From. That is out through Neon Hemlock press and is available anywhere fine books are sold. Izzy, do you want to tell people where they can find you, online or otherwise?

Izzy
Yeah, absolutely. You can find me at izzywasserstein.com, or you can find me on Twitter as @izzyxen.

Julia
Perfect, and we will have all of this written down in the show notes for this episode which will be over at juliarios.com, so if you are a subscriber and you just downloaded this podcast straight into your podcatcher, head on over to the show notes and you will find the full transcript and all of the links to things Izzie has mentioned. Thanks again, Izzy, and bye everybody! Talk to you next time.