By Leslie Lindsay
A web of intersecting lives–often dysfunctional and unusual–told in a hauntingly intimate prose with insight and empathy.
~FICTION FRIDAY|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
When this book came to my attention, I knew I had to read it. IF THE ICE HAD HELD (April 2019, winner of the Santa Fe Literary Press Award), is a gorgeously told web of intersecting lives told in a taut, lyrical prose about disillusionments, deceptions, relationships, motherhood, and so much more.
Melanie Henderson is a 35-year old professional living and working in Denver. She dabbles in affairs with married men, but still hasn’t learned that the woman who raised her is actually her aunt. But that’s only the tip of the ice berg.
Told from seven different POVs over three decades, and thirty-seven chapters, Melanie only receives sixteen of them. So who are these other people and how do they fit into Melanie’s narrative? I really enjoyed this structure, but can see how others might find it frustrating and confusing–there are a good deal of threads to maintain and lots of loose connections, at least, at first. But as time progresses, there’s a great sense of engagement, tension, and forward-momentum tying each POV together.
IF THE ICE HAD HELD *is* about teenage pregnancy, but that’s not the entirety. Irene is not quite fifteen when she learns she is ‘with child,’ and then her boyfriend, Sammy, dies crossing the ice. She keeps her pregnancy a secret, attends his funeral, and then…his sister steps in. Kathleen ‘knows’ Irene’s secret. A plan is hatched. We don’t get all of the details of that plan until later in the book, but one can assume.
IF THE ICE HAD HELD is an interconnected novel in stories about time, family, life, secrets and discovery. It does not read linearly, and I find that absolutely astonishing, a true mosaic of storytelling not easily accomplished. Frankly, I am in awe of the empathy, the perceptiveness, the overall insight and careful piecing together of this narrative, an artistic feat.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Wendy J. Fox to the author interview series.
Wendy, wow. I am blown away. IF THE ICE HAD HELD is such a kaleidoscopic telling of so many different lives and how they all interconnect. That’s much like life, I realize. But before we get into all of that, I have to know what was haunting you as you set out to write IF THE ICE HAD HELD.
Wendy J. Fox:
First of all, thank you so much for your kind words. As writers, it’s such a solitary practice, we never know how a book is going to be received once it is out in the world—and often, there can be a year or more between turning in final copy and seeing the book launch, so it can be very fraught.
However, to answer your question—I’ve talked about before how part of what inspired some of the beginning sketches of what became this book was a co-worker of mine who passed away, and I was struck by how much coincidence there is in our lives. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to know him, if it weren’t for the randomness of HR, and also, in that same vein, I met my husband when the company he worked for acquired the company I work for; so I guess we have private equity to thank for our relationship, which is weird, to say the least.
What really haunted me, though, which is not something anyone has asked so specifically, is the way that it becomes clearer and clearer to me how much we carry the trauma of our past experiences, carry the trauma of the experiences of the people we love, and are also touched by the trauma of so many people who we just come into contact with, in passing—and also, how deeply we are all connected, even when we feel separated. That last part is something COVID-19 is really putting into relief, right now.
As in life, and with complex stories, we’re drifting, searching, pulling scraps and fragments from backstory and frontstory; we’re searching and seeking connections. For me, this was the ‘fun’ of reading; I enjoyed puzzling out the details, the motivations of characters. Can you talk a little more about that?
Wendy J. Fox:
That’s one of the hardest things, understanding motivation! I feel like sometimes in life I’ll be talking (okay, gossiping) with a friend about another person, and I find myself saying What! Why would they do that?! In life, you puzzle through it. Maybe you speculate about a friend or an acquaintance, or theorize or psychologize them in some way.
In fiction, at some point, the author has to try to actually expose the motivation of a character, but hopefully do it in a way that is more artful than just being expository—but the author, as the architect of the character’s life, has a responsibility to give the readers some clues along the way. Even if I, as the writer, am on my own journey of discovering character motivations, part of the challenge is to surface detail or, yes, backstory, in order to keep the reader in the loop and not have the reader feel lost or isolated or thinking Why would they do that?!
“If the Ice Had Held, at its heart a story about second chances, is both haunting and luminous. Fox has crafted an intricate mosaic shimmering with gorgeous prose.”
– Heather Bell Adams, author of Maranatha Road
Backing up a bit…IF THE ICE HAD HELD is the 2017 winning story from the Santa Fe Writer’s Project judged by Benjamin Percy. Can you talk about what that means, exactly? I’m thinking there was a call for submissions to a short story contest, you entered and won. What’s that process like? Did you have a complete manuscript at that time? And what advice would you give to writers wishing to submit to contests? Does it matter who is judging? What if their writing isn’t like your own?
Wendy J. Fox:
Santa Fe Writers Project is a small press, meaning, they are part of the traditional publishing ecosystem that is outside of Big 5 publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, MacMillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster, plus all of their many imprints). Many small presses operate on a contest model in order to manage the submission process. So, there will be a contest call, often with a well-known judge, and this essentially functions as a way for these presses to get a pile of submissions, and then have a concrete timeline to select manuscripts that the press wants to publish, with the winner selected by the judge.
My debut collection was also published this way, from Press 53, a publisher who specializes only in short fiction and poetry.
For writers who are interested in this route, yes, you do need to have a completed manuscript ready to go. You’ll still go through an editing process, and you’ll still have a chance to do some re-writes, but I would say the manuscript needs to be around 90% there to consider submitting, about the same as you would do when seeking an agent. Again, that doesn’t mean there will not be changes—I rewrote the entire opening of IF THE ICE HAD HELD, and we had some conversations about the ending as well.
In terms of contests and judges, I don’t think it matters that much if the judge has a similar style to yours or not! The vast majority of working writers read very widely. As someone who has judged a few small things myself, I definitely lean toward a certain kind of emotional resonance, but that doesn’t mean the style has to be even remotely similar to how I personally write.
I love the meandering, spiraling narrative you took in IF THE ICE HAD HELD. Did you feel limited by that construct? Freed? Did you ever write yourself into a corners? Want to give up?
Wendy J. Fox:
In a novel, there feels like a point of no return for me, when I get committed enough to the story that I know I am going to see it through, even if that means many many many rewrites.
With ICE, it was more a structural question. I felt like the premise of the novel was working okay, but it was the order of the telling that took the most time. I ripped it apart and put it back together more than once over a period of several years.
That said, I feel like there is also almost always a point where it feels like one wants to give up. I’m working on a novel right now that has been, well, challenging, and I’ve rewritten the first ten pages way too many times, but just recently feel like I had a breakthrough on it. So, maybe I have rewritten the correct amount of times? Maybe I will feel differently in a week?
There’s an astonishing sense of urgency and intimacy in IF THE ICE HAD HELD. I know that so much of writing is based on a kernel of truth, a segment of the author’s life. I think that’s what makes it so authentic. Can you talk about that, please? And what if you the writer want to share pieces of your family history in the form of fiction, but worry how they might respond?
Wendy J. Fox:
My work is definitely fiction, but yes, is also definitely informed by my own life. While I would not say that Melanie, one of the main characters in ICE is based on me, personally, many of the experiences that she has in corporate America draw heavily on my own—mostly the dreariness of office life, and the oddness of a world that populated by people chosen by HR.
It’s an important question about fiction, I think. If the writer wants to share pieces of family history in the form of fiction and are worried about how family might respond, that might mean that the writer has not fictionalized enough. I will say, though, that my mom, after reading the book, told me that she saw echoes of herself in one of the characters. The Kathleen character is certainly not my mother, and I don’t think anyone who didn’t know either of us super well would recognize certain details, it is still a thing to consider.
While I do embrace the personal in my writing, I think as writers we just have to be honest about what we are doing—if you want to write a roman à clef, just do that, and call it what it is. If you want to write a fictionalized autobiography, that works too. The very first piece writing I published was meant to be fiction, and the editor called me and said, “Rewrite this in the first person. It’s not fiction.” He was correct about that. I had been trying to fictionalize to create distance in what was a traumatic scene in my life. That’s not the reason to fictionalize. The distance was not helping the piece at all.
ICE is about intimacy and I appreciate that you felt a sense of urgency there—intimacy and empathy do feel like the most compelling things to me both as a writer and a human.
Without answering in complete sentences, what would you say IF THE ICE HAD HELD is about?
Wendy J. Fox:
How we are all bound together.
My editor says we should always have questions and curiosities to explore in our writing. Did you find resolve in IF THE ICE HAD HELD?
Wendy J. Fox:
Oh, this makes me love your editor.
I think I did find some resolve. For as much as ICE is a novel that explores trauma and loss, it is ultimately about the ways we discover how to love one another.
Wendy, I have enjoyed this—and the book—so much. Thank you, thank you for taking the time. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
Wendy J. Fox:
Thank you, Leslie! And thank you for your careful reading.
As I said when we began, one never knows how the work will be received, and it’s also such a thrill to interact with readers who get the fundamental premise of a book. As writers, we don’t get to know how readers are going to respond until it is out there, and at that point, the writer can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.
Artistic photo of cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Follow and like onInstagram@leslielindsay1
For more information, to connect with Wendy J. Fox via social media, or to purchase a copy of IF THE ICE HAD HELD, please visit:
The writing in IF THE ICE HAD HELD is lush but sparse, reminding me a bit of Caroline Leavitt’s prose, but also Carrianne Leung (THAT TIME I LOVED YOU), meets Lee Matalone (HOME MAKING), with a touch of Thomas Christopher Greene and Anita Shreve.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Wendy J. Fox is the author of the collection The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories and the novels The Pull of It and If the Ice Had Held. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Business Insider, Buzzfeed, and Self, as well as in literary magazines including Washington Square, Euphony, and Painted Bride Quarterly. More at www.wendyjfox.com.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites.
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Leslie Lindsay is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA (Woodbine House, 2012). Her work has been published in Pithead Chapel, Common Ground Review, Cleaver Magazine (craft and CNF), The Awakenings Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Ruminate’s The Waking, Brave Voices Literary Magazine, Manifest-Station, and others. She has been awarded as one of the top 1% reviewers on GoodReads and recognized by Jane Friedman as one of the most influential book reviewers. Since 2013, Leslie has interviewed over 700 bestselling and debut authors on her author interview series. Follow her bookstagram posts @leslielindsay1.
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[Cover and author image courtesy of author and used with permission. Artistic photo of cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Follow and like onInstagram@leslielindsay1]