By Alyse Mgrdichian
Writing in an entertaining and compelling way is incredibly difficult – especially when writing short stories, since you have a limited amount of space to work in. I really love short stories because of this, especially those that successfully utilize magical realism (e.g., The Dangers of Smoking in Bed). With this in mind, I was very excited to receive a review copy of Entry Level, Wendy Wimmer’s debut short story collection (published in September 2022 by Autumn House Press). It is an incredibly impressive book, covering a range of themes, and yes … it contains a healthy dose of magical realism. I’m very happy to have had the opportunity to talk with Wendy about her experience writing it. Below you can find the collection’s synopsis, along with our conversation.
Wendy Wimmer’s debut short story collection, Entry Level, contains a range of characters who are trying to find, assert, or salvage their identities. These fifteen stories center around the experience of being underemployed—whether by circumstance, class, gender, race, or other prevailing factors—and the toll this takes on an individual…. Her characters undergo feats of endurance, heartbreak, and loneliness, all while trying to succeed in a world that so often undervalues them. From a young marine biologist suffering from imposter syndrome and a haunting to a bingo caller facing another brutal snowstorm and a creature that may or may not be an angel, Wimmer’s characters are all confronting an oppressive universe that seemingly operates against them or is, at best, indifferent to them. These stories reflect on the difficulties of modern-day survival and remind us that piecing together a life demands both hope and resilience.
Could you walk me through your professional journey as a writer, namely how you got started and what made you commit?
WW: I don’t think I ever had a choice. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been inventing stories. I was always the quiet kid who could entertain myself in the corner with paper dolls or figurines. I would create intense, multi-generational sagas with these little people, and I would also make dioramas with cardboard and the gravel from my grandmother’s driveway. I was a ghoulish, weird kid. In high school, instead of taking notes in class, I’d be writing stories in my notebook. It’s a great trick – if you write stories in class, you look like a very earnest, conscientious notetaker. Way better than trying to read a comic book under your desk.
By the time college came around, I wasn’t sure what my major was going to be. I came from a very blue collar background, so the fact that I was going to college at all was really controversial in my family. I was the first to go, so their expectation was that I was going to do something that was going to make me rich, or make it so that I didn’t have to work a physical job. But then I surprised them and got an English degree, even though I knew it wasn’t a financially good idea. It just felt right, and it’s what I enjoyed.
After graduating, I got a job in programming and stopped writing completely. I felt like I had to ‘grow up’ and be an adult – after all, everybody has dreams of becoming a writer … I needed to get more realistic. But after programming for years, I started keeping an online diary by coding it into the internet (before blogs were a thing). Like in high school, I would code during work and make it look like I was busy, but I was really just trying to entertain myself during my incredibly boring job. But then I got an audience, and that’s when I started realizing that this wasn’t going to let go of me – I was going to keep wanting readers, and I was going to keep wanting to tell the stories that were in my head. Now, after getting an MFA and PhD in writing, I’ve transitioned to making a living from IT Journalism while writing full-time on the side.
If you could, would you want to make your full income from writing?
WW: I like what I have now – I’m able to test and tease my brain at work without exhausting my creative reserves. Besides, I think I’m too nervous a person to rely on my books for income. People think that, if they get published by one of the Big Five, then they’ll be able to make a career out of their writing, but that form of publication doesn’t guarantee a livable wage. A good friend of mine is on her fourth book, with her work being very well received – but up until last year, she has never made more than $6,000 a year on her writing. People seem to forget that publishing is a business. Publishing houses are making money on your intellectual property, and you get a small percentage of those sales. When my book sells, I get 8%, which is pretty standard for a first-time author. But I clearly cannot live on 8%, or even 20% if sales are unpredictable. You can’t rely on sporadic checks.
Even if you become better known, you’re unlikely to become wealthy from your writing. Like Patrick Rothfuss, who I went to school with – he’s experiencing a great deal of success, and he’s making enough from his books to support himself, but he’s by no means wealthy. The misperception is that, once you’ve amassed a big enough following, you become a writing superstar with movie deals and six figure checks. But that’s nowhere near true, and it’s good to know that going into the field. In other words, reevaluate your idea of success. When I won the book deal for Entry Level, I had to ask myself, is this the dream? And I said, ‘Yeah, this is the dream. Somebody is in love with my book enough to put it into the hands of readers.’ That’s really all that you can ever hope for. The only person you’re guaranteed to satisfy is yourself, so if you can write something that satisfies you and somebody else wants to read it, then that’s amazing.
What was it like writing Entry Level? And when did you realize the themes you wanted to explore?
WW: It’s a short story collection, so I had the benefit of being able to piece it together, like a quilt. Because of this, some of those stories are quite old. There’s one story in there that I wrote while in undergrad – it was haunting me, so I rewrote it for the collection. There are other stories in there that I wrote literally last summer.
As for theme, I write about the patriarchy and the way that poor people are monetized by late stage capitalism, and also how it feels to be stuck in that system. Am I going to make rent this month? Which bill should I pay, water or heat? I remember being in a similar place when I was 24 – I dislocated my shoulder playing volleyball, and ended up resetting my own shoulder and skipping physical therapy because I didn’t have insurance. That’s a reality for a lot of people. Even now when I have to make a doctor’s appointment, I still think, ‘Is this going to be something that bankrupts us?’
I worked at a homeless shelter while in undergrad, which was infuriating because you’d have people there who were working 40 hours a week, yet they needed a homeless shelter to supplement their most basic needs. You’re always told to get a full-time job, then you’ll be okay – but in reality, that’s not true. You’ll never make enough on minimum wage. And it’s not like I live in San Francisco or New York City where it’s expensive to live. Many of us are only a few short paychecks away from being in seriously dire straits. But then rich people are giving jobs to people outside of the US and somehow convincing us that it’s the immigrants’ fault. And then we’re mad at immigrants or those who have received offshore jobs, rather than being mad at the person who put those jobs offshore in the first place. The analogy I think of are rats in too small of a cage – the rats get mad at each other instead of the person who put them in the cage.
The American myth is that if you’re wealthier or more financially comfortable than your peers, then you’re somehow smarter than those ‘below’ you. But that isn’t true at all – there are absolutely brilliant people making under $30,000 a year. So, long story short, these perspectives are a huge part of what drove the collection for me.
As a first time author, what was the process of publishing through a small press like for you?
WW: It’s incredibly difficult, especially with short stories (let alone a debut collection), to query or get traditionally published. We can’t all be Carmen Maria Machado, who managed to get an agent and a big press off the strength of her collection alone. I had published many of my pieces in independent magazines, but didn’t know where to go from there. So I was very lucky to have author friends, because they were able to guide me through the process. They basically said there’s one of two routes – you can either query a novel and short story collection as a ‘two for the price of one’ deal, or you can win a contest. I was trying to do the ‘two for one’ option, but then the pandemic hit. The worst part is that the novel occurs during a pandemic, which was a bit prophetic of me.
So I shifted and began submitting my collection to contests. It was a semifinalist for a few competitions, but then it won the 2021 Autumn House Fiction prize. With that win came a small stipend and publication, which was fantastic – I’ve really loved working with Autumn House, especially Christine Stroud and her group of editors. We had a good back-and-forth partnership, and it was a really collaborative and supportive operation.
From what you’ve learned from personal and professional experience, what advice would you give to your younger self? And what advice would you give to young or aspiring writers?
WW: That’s a great question. This is going to sound so crude, but opinions are like assholes – everybody has one. So don’t let somebody else’s opinion define your sense of self. It comes back to my point of, you’re the only person you’re ever guaranteed to satisfy. There’s literally a billion ideas of what makes for good writing, so nobody’s opinion matters more or less than anybody else’s. And once you’ve published your work, it leaves your control as a writer, and it’s not fully yours anymore – in a way, it becomes the readers’. How they then experience your book is completely separate from you as the writer.
Some of the best advice I ever got as a creative was from when I started doing pottery. The master potter who taught me had two pieces of advice. The first was to make 10,000 pots, then break them. It doesn’t matter how good you are – break them all, then keep the 10,001st. Through this process, you learn not to care about the pot. You learn to not get invested in it, because you’re going to break it anyway – the process is what’s important. In thinking like this, you’re freed from all your fears of perfectionism, because it no longer matters if you fuck them up. The second piece of advice he had was that, as an artist, you have to insist, resist, and persist. You have to insist upon your point of view. You have to resist the influences of other people to change your point of view. And you have to persist, meaning you have to figure out a way to live your life while still continuing to make your art. So yeah, those are my best pieces of advice, straight from Rick McKinney, the master potter in Appleton, Wisconsin.
Are there any future projects or publications your readers can look forward to?
WW: I’m clearing the pandemic novel right now, so hopefully something will happen with that soon. I’m also working on a multi-generational novel set in Wisconsin in the ‘80s. I’m hoping that the features I’ve received for Entry Level will pique the interest of readers and agents for my future projects.
Wendy Wimmer writes from Wisconsin, under the strict supervision of two dogs and a cat. She holds a Master of Arts and PhD in English from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, respectively. Her work has been published in Barrelhouse, Waxwing, Paper Darts, Believer, ANMLY, Per Contra, Blackbird, and more. She’s currently writing a novel, sipping a latte, and listening to a dog snoring at this very minute
Article originally Published in the February / March 2023 Issue: Connection.