Alyssa Wong, Pocket Interview No. 8
Alyssa Wong's work has been shortlisted for the Hugo, Bram Stoker, and Shirley Jackson awards. Her 2015 story, “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers,” won the Nebula and World Fantasy awards for best short story, and her 2016 story, “You Will Surely Drown Here If You Stay,” won the Locus Award for Best Novelette.
Last month, Alyssa spoke with us about, among other things, sex, guilt, fear, bible monsters, growing up in the desert, and the many tiers of horror. Also, trash pigs.
"When you grow up there, it doesn't really occur to you to be scared."
ALYSSA WONG: I miss the desert all the time. Especially when it rains. It's such a beautiful landscape, and I think a lot of people think it's kind of ugly because it's very brown and there aren't a lot of trees and what vegetation there is looks really sparse and it's usually also brown and sometimes spiky. But there's nothing like the Sonoran Desert. It's beautiful. The sky is gorgeous. The colors are gorgeous. When the sun comes up and goes down the mountains turn purple. I miss saguaros a lot. The saguaros are so pretty.
The saguaro are those iconic cacti that have the arms up like *boop*.
STORYOLOGICAL: The kind that look a bit like scarecrows.
ALYSSA: Yeah, yeah. They look a bit like people although they can get really big and just keep sprouting arms.
They're a very rare species. You can go to jail for killing a saguaro. There is something, I'm trying to remember what it's called, I think it's called plugging where you--and it's very illegal--where you shoot at a cactus and you punch holes in it.
On the Wikipedia article about plugging, it cites this one story of this guy who got really drunk and was shooting at a cactus and went over to poke it—I guess just to see what it would do—and the arm of the cactus, one giant arm that weighed like several hundred pounds, fell off of the cactus and crushed him. And then to add insult to injury the rest of the cactus tipped over and fell on him and he died. And I'm like, "Well, at that point dude, you had it coming."1
STORYO: Was the desert a landscape you could go into as a kid?
ALYSSA: I grew up with a mountain in my backyard. You would get desert animals coming down from the mountains and roaming the neighborhood all the time. You may have heard me talking about trash pigs. They're not actually pigs. They do eat your trash. They're called javelins, the peccaries. They look like pigs, but they're not pigs, and they would come down from the mountains in packs of 25 to 30 and roam the neighborhood and knock over trash cans and eat your trash and your flowers. And they smell really bad. But I love them because they're so cute. They were were some of my favorite animals.
There was an empty lot next to us that was just weird desert land. It's no longer there, but as a kid I used to play there all the time. Pick up weird sticks. Keep your eyes on the ground to make sure you're not stepping near any rattlesnakes. Things like that.
STORYO: Were you making up stories or just kind of wandering in a daydream?
ALYSSA: Oh, yeah, we would make up stories. We played a lot of pretend. I’m trying to remember if there were any specific plot lines. We'd find a lot of bones, and we would talk about what kinds of weird animals the bones came from and then pretend to hunt or be hunted by these weird animals. We'd gather all the bones and make tiny shrines and stuff.
I think if my parents knew they would be really upset. But. Yeah. It was fun.
STORYO: What were your parents off doing with their life while you were building bone shrines?
ALYSSA: My dad is an allergist. He was off treating people for immunological diseases. My mom stayed to watch us. I think because she was working full time, and then she was like, “I don't want to not see my children grow up.”
So, she ended up keeping an eye on us which is good because terrible stuff can happen to you in the desert if you're a young child and don't understand that water is important.
STORYO: It does sound a bit like a magical scary place. Is that something you were aware of at the time or something that when you look back on it now it seems a bit more magical and scary?
ALYSSA: I think it's always felt pretty magical to me. But, I think looking back it looks more scary from the outside. When you grow up there, it doesn't really occur to you to be scared. I grew up with scorpions and rattlesnakes and you just grow up knowing what to do around them, because they're always going to be there. The scorpions—you don't step on them, you just have to be very careful and watch the ground. Wear shoes, but not inside. The scorpions would come in the house. The rattlesnakes not, thank god. The rattlesnakes, you hear the rattle and you just stop. You don't move. You try to figure out which direction the rattles coming from and then you backtrack very, very, very, slowly away from that because they don't like it when you trespass on their territory.
"I actually think my introduction to horror was probably just the Bible."
STORYO: Do you have a different fear threshold than other people you come into contact with?
ALYSSA: I think I do. It's weird. People always act super surprised when I'm like, “Oh, yes, I write horror.” Everyone’s always very shocked. I’m not entirely sure why.
But, also, when I talk about stories, and I'm like--"Here's a thing that I would like to write"--I feel like my friends are always like, “We weren't quite expecting that, Alyssa. That's really, really horrifying.”
I think the two things that I'm really scared of are drowning—I just don't really understand water which sounds embarrassing, but—
STORYO: Well, that's okay. You grew up next to a desert. So, at least in the context of this interview, it sounds completely reasonable.
ALYSSA: Oh, thank you. That's good. Yeah, I don't know. Drowning terrifies me. I don't know what's in water. There could be all kinds of weird amoebas and animals and stuff. And then drowning. In the end our bodies are only very frail. And water doesn't care if you live or die. So. Horrifying.
ALYSSA: And dying in space weirdly enough freaks me out, because it's kind of like drowning but in not water—you run out of oxygen and you're just kinda fucked. That's it. Dying in space is knowing that you are going to die and being unable to stop it. That's scary.
STORYO: Yeah. Just the long wait.
STORYO: Have you seen Gravity?2
ALYSSA: No, and on purpose because I was like, “I don't know if I can handle Gravity.” I'm down with horror movies but Gravity, I was like, “This looks too scary for me. I can't get into this.”
STORYO: I used to be terrified of sharks. My mom was convinced it was because I saw a commercial for Jaws when I was a very small child.
STORYO: Baywatch, before it became what people think of as Baywatch, was just a show on the beach. And I remember us watching it as a family and a shark appeared in the ocean and I had to run away and hide.
ALYSSA: Oh, no.
STORYO: But, I'm then the kind of person that, when I was older, I watched Shark Week on the Discovery Channel to try to cure myself of my fear.
Were you watching horror movies when you were a kid? Was that your introduction to horror?
ALYSSA: So, weirdly enough, my favorite movie when I was like 3 or 4 was Jaws. That was because I was a shark nut. I was just like, “I love sharks!”
And that was that. I had a stuffed shark. I had a bunch of plastic sharks. I had T-shirts with sharks on them.
But, actually, my mom was very protective of what we watched and what we looked at. So I didn't actually see my first—other than Jaws—my first R-rated movie until I was about 17 or 18.
I actually think my introduction to horror was probably just the Bible.
I spent a lot of time reading and rereading Revelations (and Lamentations, too) because those were the most dramatic and interesting to me. My family is pretty religious. So, I read the Bible over and over and over. I couldn't memorize verses, but I knew the gist of stuff that happened. All I was really interested in were the crazy images, like the plagues—
STORYO: The stuff that would kill you.
ALYSSA: Yeah, of course. That's interesting. Or weird monster type things. The angels. The demons. Those are really interesting.
My favorite model for horror right now is Junji Ito stuff. Are you familiar with Junji Ito?3
STORYO: I don't think so.
ALYSSA: So Junji Ito writes Manga, and he writes fairly short one-shot type stuff. He has a couple that are longer that are pretty well known like Uzumaki and Tomie and Gyo.
But something that is really common in Junji Ito stories—and I think is very obvious in the shorter ones, too--is that weird horrifying awful stuff happens and there's no reason for it. You just roll with it. You just go. He has this one story where there are a bunch of people hiding inside of a house—a family—and their own voices are coming from outside. You find out it's because there are these giant balloons with their faces on them, and, if the balloon with your face on it finds you, it grabs you and soars up into the sky and you disappear forever.
STORYO: Into space probably.
ALYSSA: Yeah. Probably. Where you die knowing you're gonna die in space.
But, that's the whole thing. It's terrifying. The premise is ridiculous, but it is horrifying. There's no reason that the balloons are there. They're just there. This just happened, and you have to deal with it. That is my favorite model for horror—that there is no fucking reason, it just happens. And that's very biblical, too. Like, “Why is it this way? I don't know. God said so, I guess,” or like, “It's just time for a third of the world to die. And also all the oceans are now blood.”
Cause, why not? Let’s do it.
"If you could just stop being afraid of the things that you were afraid of about yourself, you could be anything. You could be beautiful and strong and confident and powerful. Who doesn't want that, right?"
STORYO: The bible is just a really long book of many different people trying to come to terms with things that they don't understand. It's terrifying.
ALYSSA: I definitely think so. It's super trippy.
ALYSSA: I think that that lack of interest in—not reason exactly—but the lack of interest in explaining the why has definitely informed the way I write. I have this story, “You'll Surely Drown Here If You Stay,” which I still to this day describe as a necromancer Cinderella story, but apparently no one knows that it's a Cinderella story.4
STORYO: There's that point where a shoe falls off.
ALYSSA: There's a part of the shoe falls off. There's the whole Ashpodel rhyme thing.
ALYSSA: There's the father's grave with the trees over it, and the birds that bring him stuff.
STORYO: Right. I couldn't not picture that scene as an inversion of the Disney scenes with the birds. Anyway. Yes. I think you're entirely right. Go ahead.
ALYSSA: Yes, thank you. So it was supposed to be a Cinderella story.
There's a lot of stuff that just is, right? His mom is the desert. There's no explanation for it. She just is. How did it happen? That was one of the things I got when I when I brought that to my MFA workshop. People were like, “How did this happen? Why? What do you mean his mother is a desert? Who is his actual mother?”
I was like, “It’s the desert.”
And they were like, “But why? How?”
And I was like, “I don't know. It just is. You know—why is anything, really?”
ALYSSA: Why the fuck not is more the question. Why does he turn into a weird desert beast thing? Desert powers, I guess.
STORYO: Where did you lose interest in the why?
ALYSSA: I think I've always felt this way. When you're a kid the why is important because you want to know more about the world, but also your sense of why isn't particularly concrete because you don't know enough about the world.
ALYSSA: And, of course, now I'm very interested in the why. But when it comes to storytelling I just go with it. There are things you need to know and trust me to tell you the things that you need to know. And the why behind the things that you need to know. But the rest, it's just background. It's a setup, right? The balloon story is not really about the balloons. I mean it kind of is, but it's also about how this family reacts under pressure in this horrifying situation. I think that's the weird unknowable horror.
STORYO: There’s something I think about in “The Fisher Queen” and “Hungry Daughters...” and “Natural Skin.”
There are a lot of characters in those stories that people might think of as villainous. The mermaid in “The Fisher Queen,” for example, or in “Natural Skin”—what is the name of the…
ALYSSA: Oh, the flesh doctor?
STORYO: Yeah, the flesh doctor. Do they have a name? We can just call them the flesh doctor. The flesh doctor sounds villainous enough.
ALYSSA: That is true.
STORYO: And often in those stories, as in so many of your stories, while our sympathies shift towards the villain, the villain never really stop being scary. Not everyone does that. Some stories, when they humanize monsters, they turn them into good guys or turn them into victims. But it seems like there’s something important to you in not taking away what makes them scary.
ALYSSA: It is important to me. I think those characters are very interesting. I love villains, but part of the appeal of a villain is that they are interesting and terrifying and you hate them and you love them and you hate to love them and you love to hate them and they're complex and part of that complexity is not like, "I’ve looked under the hood and you are actually just a good person." That seems very boring to me. It's that you are dangerous and scary, but I see myself in you and perhaps we are the two people who connect the most in this world.
But you are still you.
It is not in spite of what you are, but it is because of what you are and perhaps because of what I am, too, whether or not I want to admit it.
In “Natural Skin” the only person who the protagonist meets that at all has a healthy relationship with the way that the protagonist looks is the flesh doctor—who is like, “You don't need any more surgery. If you want it, you can have it, but you are already beautiful. I’m not put off by the fact that you've had like a billion surgeries. In fact I think that it is gorgeous. You're already a masterpiece.”
Nobody in that story says that to the protagonist other than this person who is a black market doctor that sells human parts.
STORYO: What fascinates you about that idea that the villain might have this insight that no one else in the story seems capable of having?
ALYSSA: I like the idea of the bad ending, right? There's always a worst end path.
Also, on a very personal level, I find scary characters very appealing. So, I always want to write them because they're fun and because I think they're hot. It just happens.
STORYO: Horror is quite sexy.
ALYSSA: It is. It's an incredibly embodied genre.
Horror has to appeal to you on a very visceral level. A lot of it is about bodies. Even emotional horror is very tied to the body.
Anything with weird body horror I'm super down for. Because bodies are terrifying.
But, to back it up to your original question, I like the idea of the villain being right on some level.
I think you see that in “Hungry Daughters.” Jenny’s mother is like, “You are this way and you can never let anyone know about this. You have to hide it. Because of it you are a monster.”
ALYSSA: Jenny has internalized this even as she's trying to embrace her powers. She's like, “I can never let Aiko know about this. I can’t let my best friend/ex-girlfriend/however you want to interpret that (they’re exes!)—
STORYO: —it’s not head canon if it's the author.
ALYSSA: That's true! Haha!
But yeah, she's like, “I can never let this person know because if she did know then she would run away from me because I'm a monster.”
And then she meets this older woman who is like, “I am just like you but better and you could be like me if you stop being afraid of yourself.”
I think that message is incredibly appealing to so many people. If you could just stop being afraid of the things that you are afraid of about yourself, you could be anything. You could be beautiful and strong and confident and powerful. Who doesn't want that, right?
"I like to write people who are terrified of themselves. And so when they see something that they fear it's because something is reflected about themselves that they don't want to think about."
STORYO: In a lot of myths, including Buffy--I really was obsessed with Buffy, I still am—there’s the idea that the heroes tend to be part monster. Their power tends to come from what the wider world thinks of as a dark place. I wondered if that idea resonated with you at all. The idea that in order to to be heroic there has to be some darkness—that you must be intimate with it in some way.
ALYSSA: Definitely resonates with me. I like to write about monstrous women. There are a lot of things that people do in order to survive that people who don't have the same context and experiences would think are terrible or monstrous or whatever. And I think exploring that is interesting. People who are willing to do what they need to do in order to achieve their goals. You can apply that to heroes and villains, just like people.
Something I'm working on right now has three, maybe four, core characters, and they’re all like that. Each one of them has something that they really want, and they will do anything to get it. In any other story, they could be the hero, or they could be the villain.
They're all a bit villainous to be completely honest.
STORYO: Do you see any difference between a hero and a villain?
ALYSSA: I think so. I mean it depends on what context you mean. In terms of a protagonist, probably not, but in terms of a hero, I think it boils down to how many people you are willing to hurt to get your way. In a very classic good versus evil, D&D alignment chart kind of way.
STORYO: There's a threshold once you pass a certain number of dead bodies?
ALYSSA: Yeah, probably. It always depends on who the camera is following, right?
Ultimately those are the big differences. Who is a story centered on and how many people are you willing to hurt. Those two things are what separate the hero from the villain, and in any story they're kind of iffy.
You get a lot more stories for kids that are a lot more clear-cut where it's like, "You did a bad thing, and I will stop you from doing the bad thing!”
STORYO: Yeah, or superhero movies.
ALYSSA: Yeah, or superhero movies. So dark and gritty. Who is the real superhero? Perhaps it is not, indeed, Superman! I’m just like, this is fine. Whatever.
I like my heroes villainous.
It makes it more interesting. And, like I said, it's sexier.
STORYO: I’ve heard other horror writers discuss how there’s this interesting line you have to walk where you want your horror story to be scary, but you also don't want sex to be shameful or bad—and yet because it's a horror story if somebody has sex or has a desire that usually turns into a scary thing.
ALYSSA: I think that it's really easy shorthand to be like sex--so terrifying! The succubus or the kids who go into the woods to bang and then they get offed by the monster first.
I think it's the way that you convey desire that’s really telling. There are very intense ways to tie desire and fear viscerally, but there are also ways to make sex and desire into those oases of emotional calm in a story that's otherwise very terrifying.
There are ways to celebrate sex and desire in horror stories. It doesn't always have to be something that is guilty or shameful or evil. I think there's a lot of subconscious work being done when you write, and I think that part of it is that a lot of us still feel kind of guilty about sex.
Ultimately it’s—as a writer—it's just going through and being very intentional about every single thing you do. It's totally doable.
ALYSSA: I mean I prefer my sex in stories kind of terrifying, but absolutely there are ways to do it. And I've done it before. Good positive sex in a story.
STORYO: It reminds me of the way we talked about dealing with creatures that we think of as villainous.
In order for sex to be a positive thing doesn't it mean you have to remove all terror from it. It doesn't have to stop being sometimes a scary thing. Why wouldn't it be scary to open yourself to someone else? That's part of what makes it magical. That sounds weirdly literal and metaphorical but—
ALYSSA: Yeah. You don't have to take all the terror out of sex to make it magical. But, I definitely feel like there are tiers of horror stories.
The first tier is, “Ahhhh, a scary thing!”
The next tier is, “A scary thing! But it follows me home and perhaps this person that I trust betrayed me.”
And the next level is that the background is a scary thing, and then here’s the real scary thing! But the actual scary thing is how far people are willing to go and how terrifying people are in certain circumstances.
I think that most sex related horror tends to be tier 1.
Whenever I talk to friends about stories—which I feel very lucky to get to do—I always ask them questions like, “OK, what is this story about?” And they'll say, “Something like, uhhh, I don't know fatherhood.” I'm like, “OK. Well tell me more. What is scary about fatherhood? You can say fatherhood is scary, but what is it? Is it fear of disappointment? A fear of not being able to provide for your child? Is it fear of being a bad role model?” And they'll say, “Being a bad role model.” I’m like, “Okay, let's go deeper. What is it about this fear that is scary? Is it fear of passing something on? Is it a fear of being absent?”
I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing and I'm like, “Now what does this tell you about your protagonist?”
ALYSSA: And that's your story’s start. Then your job is to push it further and further and further until that's the given. That is just assumed, and it's obvious, so you just keep going until you get to something that isn't.
STORYO: It seems like in your stories fear and hate are a place to begin understanding yourself.
ALYSSA: Absolutely. I like to write people who are terrified of themselves. And so when they see something that they fear it's because something is reflected about themselves that they don't want to think about.
I think that fear and hate is a really good point of trying to figure out what is going on with you. “Why are you feeling this? Why does this person bother you? Why does this thing terrify you?”
Maybe it's as simple as, “When I was a child, I stepped on a scorpion and now I'm terrified of scorpions.” Or maybe it's something like, “When I was a child, I stepped on a scorpion while in my own house and therefore there’s this fear of the things that are closest to me—that I take for granted—being able to hurt me if I'm not always paying attention."
Maybe that's the deeper fear.
Maybe it’s not actually the bug. Maybe it's fear of intimate betrayal.
What people are scared of says a lot about them.
STORYO: More than the scary thing, perhaps.
ALYSSA: Definitely more than the scary thing.
ALYSSA: Absolutely. Is it space or is it knowing that your death is creeping closer and you will die alone because of your own stupid decisions?
"I want to know what made you the way that you are."
STORYO: So, you're in the desert and you're really into the Bible, or at least you're into the Bible parts that you liked. Raised in a religious house, were you religious as a kid, or were you always kind of separate from it?
ALYSSA: When I was a kid, I was very religious. Because it's all you know.
I trusted my parents. In a world that is largely unknowable, my parents are the only guide I have to tell me what is real in the world outside of our house and outside of the things that I can experience.
I think a lot of religion is about that trust, as well. Trusting that someone else knows what's going on and can make sense of the world in one way or another.
As I got older I was like, “This is not for me,” but that kind of trust and flexible reality characterizes a lot of the way I thought about stuff when I was a kid. Specifically stories, too. I was like, “Well, why not? Why couldn't this happen? And if this happened in a world what would the conditions have to be in order to make it so? What would the rest of the world have to look like?”
I was fine with mutable realities as long as they made sense, if that makes sense.
STORYO: Yeah. It does. It sounds like as a kid you didn't really distinguish between the stories in the Bible and the stories that you read in other books.
ALYSSA: I definitely didn't. I was like, “Well this story is about family betrayal and weird magical things happening.” And from that summary it could be any number of stories, but mostly I'm thinking of Moses and Pharaoh.
Family betrayal and magical things happening are one of my favorite things in stories.
STORYO: In, “The Fisher Queen,” that story begins so deeply in trust with the father because the father is telling the girl stories about her mother.
STORYO: That’s speaking to what you're talking about, that's a story of betrayal and trust.
How did that story feel like as it was coming together for you? Were you aware of these pieces coming together? Was it a superhero moment—now I understand myself and the world!
ALYSSA: That was really my first story that actually came together in that way. I guess in that sense it was my level up story.
I was right out of college, and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to write about. I had been trying to write this mermaid story for two years, and I just could not make it happen. And the truth is, it was because I wasn't interested in mermaids. I don't care about mermaids. My friend really likes mermaids, and I wanted to write her something. But, for me—and this is sort of what I do every time I get stuck on a story—I have to bring it back to things I like. What are things I like? I really like big fish. And you're seeing the connection now with the sharks.
ALYSSA: I used to watch a show called River Monsters, and it's about this guy who goes and researches big fish and then catches big fish to examine them and stuff.5
STORYO: If you're scared of drowning, and you're in love with sharks, and you're watching River Monsters, it seems like—are you making friends with your fear or are you trying to learn more about what you're afraid of?
ALYSSA: I think I'm making friends with it. I think fish are fascinating. I like weird biology. It's the unknown that scares me.
So, for me there was a moment I was like, “Oh this story is about fish.”
And it is about the old stories of mermaids where sailors were like, “I saw a hot fish woman!” When really it was a manatee or a dolphin or something, but they were super horny and they've been on the ship for a billion years or whatever and they were like, “What kind of thing could this possibly be? Must be a hot woman!”
I was interested in interrogating that idea of male sexual entitlement and the weird stuff that it enables people to do. I wanted to write about fish and those stories about fisherman and sailors and imagining something sexual. I wanted to write about the way men think about women's bodies.
There was a lot of discussion when I was in college about college sexual assault.
And I was like, “What is the thing that brings this all together?”
And I realized that the story was about finding out that someone you love and admire is a monster in one way or another. And who is a better figure for that than a parent? Why not? Let's do it.
I have a really good relationship with my own dad by the way—just throwing that out there. But I was thinking about that and what it means to have a lot of faith in somebody to teach you about the way the world is and to have that trust broken very abruptly and to realize that this person is just another person—a very fallible person.
I think that's something that all kids go through with their parents. There's a point where you just realize my mom is just a person. She's not a superhero or a paragon of this or that. And therefore whenever she does something it's not some huge betrayal or whatever. It's just because she's a person and people make mistakes.
ALYSSA: I think as a child you always have that realization or you should anyway, you absolutely should.
STORYO: I remember having that conversation with my sister. My parents fought a lot, and, when we were younger, my mom asked us to help her. So, we grew up helping my mom in these fights with my dad. And it was a strange evolution to realize our dad wasn't actually a villain or a bad guy. And then to transition from seeing our mom as a bad guy for asking us to help her. Eventually, they just seemed like confused humans. When you have that realization as a kid it's weird because you feel closer to your parents, but there's something else there, too, besides just feeling closer. I'm not sure what it is.
ALYSSA: I think it's such an integral part of growing up. Where you're like, “Oh, you're like me.”
It definitely made me more interested in where my parents came from.
And I had always been interested. But, as I got older and had this realization, I was like “I want to know what made you the way you are. How did you get to this point that I had always accepted as a given?”
STORYO: Are there any stories that they told you which snapped them into a clearer picture?
ALYSSA: I definitely think that there were. One that’s pretty simple is my mom grew up very Catholic, and I think that there is a lot of trust that the Catholic Church counts on in terms of telling people the way things are. And years and years and years of tradition. So, I think that in terms of the way that my mom approaches authority—she's no longer Catholic, now she's extremely evangelical--but the way my mom approaches authority and the way she wants to believe in authority I think is deeply rooted in that Catholic tradition.
STORYO: I can imagine how that would clash with feeling that everything was mutable—feeling that a Bible story is very similar in its authority to this book about bunnies.
ALYSSA: It's true. It's so true.
STORYO: Is there a story that you tell about yourself—a kind of origin story for how you became you?
ALYSSA: I guess my my origin story is that I grew up in the desert in a very intensely right-wing evangelical family. I was very involved in church. Went to college and was doing church related stuff minimum six days a week on top of all my classes—church leadership stuff. And I quit very abruptly because I was like, “I’m too gay for this. Bye.”
STORYO: That was during college?
ALYSSA: Yeah. About halfway through college I shifted my entire life.
I had always had problems with authority, I guess, and it’s weird because I talk so much about just accepting things as given. But, the way that the church explores relationships between men and women and the way that it said things had to be without giving reasons for it. The way it treated women and the way it treated queer people, I was like, “I’m not here for this.” And I had never been there for it. Even as a small child I was like, “This seems stupid,” and they'd just be like, “Well, you just have to do it.”
I saw so many problems happen. So much unfair treatment happen because of these roles. Because of the way that we were supposed to treat people.
And as someone who is part of several of those groups, eventually I hit my threshold and said, “I’m out.”
I changed my major. I broke up with my at the time boyfriend and broke up with the fellowship basically at the same time. Goodbye. Farewell forever.
That's when I really started being being able to be me. I graduated, and I went to Clarion right after graduation. And at that six week writing workshop I started writing the things that I had always wanted to write but had always been too afraid to write about in the open. I had always written about them, but I coded them in several layers of like, “You cannot see this!”
“The Fisher Queen” was my first story where I said I am going to write whatever the fuck I want to write and no one can stop me. And I didn't think anybody would like it or want to read my weird fish flesh eating story. But I was wrong and that felt pretty great.
"I think it's much more interesting to have joy and real moments of connection in a terrifying world. I think that is much harder to do. And it's much more interesting."
STORYO: Heroes. Monsters. Villains. All of them tend to be alone, or lonely type people. Is that something that clicks with you? Something that you think about in your own writing, or in life? That sense of aloneness.
ALYSSA: I was pretty lonely as a kid. And it was always more interesting to me to go into one person's head than to have to explore a bunch of other connections. So, maybe, it's just me being lazy. Recently, in the past year or so, I've really been exploring what it's like to have characters around--supporting characters who are actually supportive and not just antagonistic.
I think that when people think that they are monsters they tend to self-isolate. And I write a lot of people like that, and I know a lot of friends who think that they're monsters for reasons that are very intimate to them. But, I don't think they are. So, I'm like, “Hey guys, stop isolating. Come hang out. You're great. Celebrate yourself!” And they're like, “Noooo.”
I think that for heroes who hate themselves it makes sense that they're kind of solitary.
For villains, I actually think that the best villains have a good network of support who love them and are like, “You're great!” And they're like, “Yeah I am!”
And then they go and do evil stuff. That’s my favorite thing. I love villain power couples. They're my favorite.
STORYO: There was an essay you wrote about a line you kept coming back to—“It takes a certain rage.”
ALYSSA: Oh, yeah.
STORYO: You were talking earlier about how when you were younger it was too scary to put some of these things about who you really are and what you think into public.
Is that moment where you became less afraid connected at all to discovering rage? I’m interested in what rage has meant to you.
ALYSSA: I think it's changed.
I think that people are afraid of anger whether or not it's constructive anger or destructive anger, and they're different.
There is the petty anger of seeing other people get what you feel you were entitled to. And the desire to burn it all down because you couldn't have what you wanted. And that is the kind of anger that people are afraid of. And that's the kind of anger that I think people think all anger is.
Then there's the kind of anger at injustice. And the way people are treated and just getting fed up and maybe even being like, “I’m gonna burn it all to the ground because it sucks.” And you can see how these two things are tied together. And how easily one can be poisoned.
I've always had that thing of this isn't right—and the way that people are treated is shit—so we should fix that even if it means burning shit to the ground and then building back up.
STORYO: Your stories do feel very interested in morality.
Like they are struggling with figuring out what do we owe ourselves as individuals—what can we expect from other people—and what do we actually owe to other people versus what they expect from us.
ALYSSA: Definitely, definitely. Playing with people's expectations is one of the best things you can do in stories, and it is one of my favorite things to do. No matter what those expectations are.
And I write a lot about women because I think like there are a lot of very specific gendered expectations for women. And mostly they're bullshit. I’m interested in interrogating that in terms of what they are and the way people react to them.
I think that's probably why a lot of my characters are a sort of bait and switch character. The sweet on the outside, monster on the inside.
I don't like grim dark. I think it's boring. I think it's easy. It is easy to be like, “The world is terrible terrible terrible terrible terrible terrible! Hey look here's some shocking sexual assault!” Maybe if I was twelve and I was like, "Oh, this is so deep!"
I think it's much more interesting to have joy and real moments of connection in a terrifying world. I think that is much harder to do. And it's much more interesting.
STORYO: This reminds me of what you wrote about your mom. How she asked you about why you go to these dark places and why you write. It feels connected to me somehow. This thing you're talking about of what you expect or want from horror and what it means to you and what you think that it can give to you and to the world.6
ALYSSA: For me, it's not descending anywhere. It's just writing from where I am already. I don't have to go anywhere to pull weird shit out of my head. It’s just there, always. And that's fine. I enjoy it. It makes things fun.
But, I do think the people who have to plumb for the darkest, most gruesome shit, and just throw it all out there--that is tier 1. I'm not interested. I'm not interested in a mashup of all of Wikipedia's grossest stuff.
I would rather know about people.
I would rather know about how people react to that stuff.
I would rather see you balance things that you wouldn't necessarily think of in horror with things that you expect more.
STORYO: In "You'll Surely Drown Here If You Stay" there is that image of a dead chicken beginning to dance around the boy, and—if it's not fair tell me it's not fair—I had this sudden feeling that there was something about the way you were writing about this boy’s power that felt akin to the way that you write. That these dead things, these scary things, come to life around you and that some part of growing up has been learning how to direct that energy.
ALYSSA: I think that's very fair. I think that's a really cool way of thinking about it. I love Ellis. His name is Ellis because occasionally Starbucks people write Ellis on my cup.
STORYO: They just can't listen to all of the syllables.
ALYSSA: Right. And then also because he's Cinder-Ellis. Haha.
STORYO: Buried puns. That's the secret to Alyssa’s work.
ALYSSA: It's true. I'm terrible at puns but when I get one, I'm just like, “Yeah!! Let's go hard!”
But, yeah. It is a matter of corralling things and pulling things out of the depths—things that I had buried for so long—and really getting the chance to play with that stuff that perhaps other people think I shouldn’t.
I like that image that you just built. The idea that perhaps it is that same thing of pulling the things around you and learning how to direct them. I think that's exactly it.
Also, the chicken was really fun to write. It was super fun.
"It doesn't make any sense to be like, 'Oh, I'm just a normal person,' because what the fuck does that even mean?"
STORYO: In, “You’ll Surely Drown Here if You Stay,” Ellis talked about being blessed and cursed by what his parents left him. It is a fairly strong thread through a lot of your stories--this conflicted feeling about home and this conflicted feeling about what you've inherited from it. I wonder, one, what fascinates you about this in stories—why does it feel like something to turn a narrative around? And, two, I'm interested in how you've come to terms with these questions—with what you think of as the gifts and curses that you've inherited.
ALYSSA: Let's start with the first question. I feel like where you come from is such an important part of who a character is. I’m always interested in stories that interrogate that. The questions people have about where they come from. Their strengths and weaknesses.
I feel like there are a lot of heroes who are—I keep saying heroes because I've been playing a lot of video games and the playable characters are usually called heroes or champions—but a lot of protagonists who are like, “Yeah, I'm strong, and I'm great!” And, perhaps, there's a little bit of their past but usually because they are adult men there's not a lot of discussion about their families or where they come from.
STORYO: James Bond.
STORYO: There’s nothing.
ALYSSA: Were you born from the ether? What happened?
But, I think, especially as an Asian-American person, as the child of diaspora, you always grow up knowing that where you come from makes you different from the people around you. And there are places in the States where I think legacy is really important.
It's an always present part of you when you are a minority. These are the things that make you different from the people around you. So where you come from is really important to who you are because it's dictated all of your actions, and it's helped develop you into the person you are. So, for me, it just makes sense to interrogate where you came from and where you got the things that made you the person you are now. It doesn't make any sense to be like, “Oh, I'm just a normal person,” because what the fuck does that even mean? Your experiences shape you, and I think that if you have the luxury of being unaware of the fact that your experiences shape you then that means that you've lived a very charmed life.
ALYSSA: In terms of things I inherited. I'm very much like my dad in temperament, and the way I think about things, but my mom always said that I got my temper from her mother, my grandma. And that's always been a double edged sword because my grandma is very fierce, but she also is a bit unbalanced.
So, it's one of those things where you wonder how much you inherited from people. Is it just a little bit?
Is it just enough to make you interesting? Or is it just enough to make you dangerous?
STORYO: One of my great uncles had schizophrenia, and my granddad had some alcoholism and some other things that he dealt with. That question is always a haunting one. At some point will it erupt out of me?
ALYSSA: Right, exactly. I'm very lucky to know about some of the weird stuff genetically that I've inherited. Here's a weird one. I'll tell you. I have a blood disorder where I don't clot very well. So, I'm just like, “Well, hope I don't get any major trauma.”
I also write a lot about motherhood because that's really interesting to me. I think people think that it's me writing about my mom, but it's mostly just me writing about my own fears of motherhood.
What kind of weird shit are you gonna pass on to your kids?
If I have kids, am I going to give them this horrible blood disease thing that I have? Am I going to give them any number of the learned behaviors that I have? If the kid turns out weird in any way shape or form--and this is the classic parent thing--is it because of some “failing” of mine?
ALYSSA: Which I think is something my parents wonder sometimes. Cause. Not gonna lie. The kid turned out weird.
STORYO: But, like, award-winning weird. So.
ALYSSA: I guess that's true. It is award-winning weird.
ALYSSA: So, yeah. I think that it is easy for parents to take--the way their children are--to take that personally. When really they shouldn't. Because I think to take things that aren’t yours to take, personally, it's just a way of trying to exert control over things.
STORYO: Yeah. Like that one story you wrote.
ALYSSA: “A Fist of Permutations.”
ALYSSA: That one's all about trying to control the narrative after the fact.
STORYO: Have you read Helen Oyeyemi's book, What is Not Yours is Not Yours?7
ALYSSA: No. I want to though.
STORYO: I think you might love it. All of the stories are centered on that idea of figuring out a way to not take what doesn't belong to you. Both in the way we often think of it--as stealing something from someone else or trying to impose your will on someone else--but also in the way that guilt often really functions as a way of self-empowerment in a strange way because if you feel guilty for it then that means that it's your fault which means it was within your power.
ALYSSA: That is exactly it. I don't have time for guilt.
ALYSSA: I felt guilty about stuff for a long time, and I could keep feeling guilty. I could wallow in my guilt. I could try to grab hold of things that don't belong to me through my guilt. Or I could try to handle it in a more healthy way and relinquish that control to the people who actually own whatever it is that I'm feeling guilty about. I could feel guilty from now until I die.
I feel like guilt is really unhelpful. I think that it is unhelpful if there is no action paired with it. It's fine to feel guilty if it gets you to do stuff. I think that if you just feel generally guilty about stuff then it takes a toll on you and why are you doing it if you don't do anything about it? I feel like guilt is about making things about you.
ALYSSA: It's putting things into your sphere of control. I think that's super unnecessary. The best thing to do is to have a healthy relationship with what really does belong to you and what doesn't.
Guilt is a good way to control people, too. And I'm not here for that.
STORYO: Yeah. That is true. I found that to be the most complicated thing in thinking about my mom or other people in my life and me, as well. The amount of hate that you build up towards someone that is controlling you, or attempting to control you, through guilt. They seem to be adopting a weaker stance, and I grew up really confused about anger because how can you be angry at someone for being weak?
ALYSSA: Yeah, that makes sense.
STORYO: I have no idea how to ask this question. But, when you were talking about the desert and you were talking about rattlesnakes and scorpions and trash pigs, and you talked about how you found them and that landscape beautiful in a way that other people don’t, it has me thinking about why it is that you, or why some people, are able to see that beauty where other people see ugliness? Cause here's the thing. I also often see beauty in things that people find ugly, and it feels like me and everyone I know who is a bit like that tended to grow up with some sense that they themselves were ugly.
ALYSSA: Yeah. I see that.
I always thought that there was something wrong with me. Because I liked these weird things. Because I had a dark imagination.
My mom would say, “Why do you write these dark things? Why can't you write something that's lighter, more edifying?”
She used C.S. Lewis, as an example, but I’m like, “Man, C.S. Lewis wrote some dark gory shit.”
STORYO: Oh, yeah.
ALYSSA: But she was like, “Chronicles of Narnia!” And I was like, “There was almost child sacrifice on a stone slab, so I don't know what you're talking about but…”
STORYO: She was also into the Bible, and I'm sure she wouldn't think of that as full of blood lust.
ALYSSA: It's true.
STORYO: But it's a lot of blood. There's a lot.
ALYSSA: There's so much violence.
STORYO: There's a lot of bone magic in the Bible, really. it's just full of it.
ALYSSA: It's true.
I always thought that there was something a little bit wrong with me, and I was okay with that. I was OK with the idea that maybe there was something terribly wrong with me—and, well, I wasn't okay with it for a long time, and then at a certain point I was like, “I guess this is just how I am. I'll just have to deal. I'm a little bit weird and maybe I'm a little bit wrong, but that's how it is.”
It was always interesting to see the things that people didn't like and to find out if I also didn't like them. And maybe I did like them, and maybe that made me wrong—maybe that proved that I was wrong. But, in truth, it didn't. It just meant that I liked trash pigs and scorpions and rattlesnakes and sharks. Maybe “normal” kids my age didn’t, but it didn't make me more or less special. Better. Wrong. Whatever. It just made me whatever the fuck I am, and I'm okay with that.
"Messy, sexy, slightly stressful."
STORYO: One side note. “Fisher Queen” begins, “My mother was a fish.” Is that a Faulkner thing? Or is that total coincidence?8
ALYSSA: Oh my god, it's total coincidence. And then, when I was reading Faulkner, I was like, “Woah, wait a second.”
ALYSSA: Oh shit.
STORYO: It's perfect. I love it. We’ll come back to that in a second. There's a questionnaire that this guy James Lipton did on his show Inside the Actors Studio that he took from a French show and I took and so it's kind of adapted on that. It's 10 questions and you don't need to think too much. Just answer whatever comes to mind.
ALYSSA: Sure, sure.
STORYO: What is your favorite word?
ALYSSA: Oh god. I don't know why the word slither is coming to mind, but it's not my favorite word. I have no idea what my favorite word is. Maybe it's sneer.
STORYO: What is your least favorite word?
ALYSSA: I was going to say I don't really have words that I don't like, but probably some word that sounds like another word. Probably some really simple basic word. I don't know why the word bobble, to bobble up and down, is coming to mind. It's probably not that. But let's go with it. Why not.
ALYSSA: It's just weird.
STORYO: What is your favorite smell?
ALYSSA: Either roses or mint tea.
STORYO: What is your least favorite smell?
STORYO: What do you wish that you knew more about?
ALYSSA: A lot of things. I think something that I wish I knew more about are the feelings associated with masculinity—especially toxic masculinity. I wish I knew more about the pressures of assuming masculinity. I know some about it, but I don't know a ton. It seems very intriguing because it's something that for the most part is pretty closed off to me.
STORYO: What do you wish that you knew less about?
ALYSSA: Hmm. I have a very intense answer, but what I think I'm going to say instead is all the ways that the human body is filthy and can deteriorate. I wish I knew a lot less about that. I know a lot about that.
STORYO: Let's pretend for a moment that your life has a soundtrack. What song is playing when you're at your happiest?
ALYSSA: Right now probably Madeon’s, “Pay No Mind,” featuring Passion Pit. It's just so cheerful and every time I hear it makes me happy.
STORYO: What is your favorite kind of story?
ALYSSA: Messy ones. Messy, sexy, slightly stressful ones.
STORYO: What is your least favorite kind of story?
These are not particularly highbrow answers, but they encompass a lot of things.
If I've seen this before and there's nothing new about it, I'm just not interested. If it is super dense, and it takes itself too seriously then I'm not interested. If there is a certain rawness to a story then I'm very interested.
I would say that there are a number of stories that many friends have recommended to me based on hype or concept, but for me I found the execution lacking. It's not enough to be like, “Oh this story deals with math or gender or rediscovering an old mythos in a way that I think is really cool or that’s exciting to me.” For me, if the characters aren’t there, if the emotional intensity and complexity aren’t there, if it's not clear—sometimes the story is on the surface intellectually interesting, but if it's not communicated in a way that I feel is clear enough to be effective and I have fight my way through a story—then I'm just not interested.
There are absolutely deft masterful ways of making a story clear and illuminating without losing any of that intellectual complexity.
If your story isn't particularly accessible to a reader who doesn't know anything about this already, then I'm just not interested.
I don't care whether or not you're doing groundbreaking things with gender and math if I can't understand it. If you're not at all trying to engage me.
STORYO: Last question. Back to William Faulkner. He said somewhere that the only thing worth writing about was the heart in conflict with itself. If he came back from the dead—if you did a little bone magic and Faulkner came back and he decided I'm going to write the story of Alyssa Wong—
ALYSSA: Oh god.
STORYO: —what do you think that story would be about?
ALYSSA: Oh god. Like my—like me?
STORYO: Yeah. In terms of your heart in conflict with itself.
ALYSSA: Oh god. Probably it would be about someone whose biggest weakness is a faltering lack of confidence--which I am working on—-and who I think has been conflicted for a long time about whether or not writing what they really know and want to write about is okay.
That is the thing that I have gotten over, and I'm still pushing my way through the last bits of.
I think probably someone with complicated relationships with family, of course.
And probably weird magic powers.