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To celebrate the publication of her new story collection, The Last Catastrophe, Allegra Hyde discusses climate fiction, the concept of “global weirding,” the inspiration behind her speculative premises, the value of literary magazine publication, her revision process, what it was like to appear on a late-night show to discuss her debut novel, literary agents for short fiction writers, her writing process for novels vs. stories, creating art at the end of the world, and more.
Allegra Hyde is the author of Eleutheria, which was named a “Best Book of 2022” by The New Yorker. She is also the author of the story collection, Of This New World, which won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award. Her second story collection, The Last Catastrophe, was published in March 2023 by Vintage. A recipient of three Pushcart Prizes, Hyde’s writing has also been anthologized in Best American Travel Writing, Best of the Net, and Best Small Fictions. She currently teaches at Oberlin College.
Mentioned in this episode:
- Oberlin College
- Alexis de Tocqueville
- John Simmons Short Fiction Award
- Erin Harris at Folio Literary Management
- Poets & Writers lit mag article
- Late Night with Seth Meyers
- Martha Stewart
- Oberlin Arboretum
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones
Allegra Hyde (00:00): I met Martha Stewart. She surveyed the free cookies that we were given and immediately noted that they had too much butter. Laura Maylene Walter (00:11): Welcome to Page Count, presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. This podcast celebrates authors, illustrators, librarians, booksellers, literary advocates, and readers in and from the state of Ohio. Laura Maylene Walter (00:27): I'm your host, Laura Maylene Walter the Ohio Center for the Book Fellow and author of the novel BODY OF STARS. Today I'm speaking with Allegra Hyde about her brand new story collection, THE LAST CATSTROPHE, if you're listening to this on the day we upload the episode today, is the release Date for this new book. She is also the author of the novel ELEUTHERIA, which came out just last year and the story collection OF THIS NEW WORLD. Today we'll be talking about THE LAST CATSTROPHE, climate fiction writing stories versus writing novels and a lot more. Allegra, welcome to the podcast and thanks for being here. Allegra Hyde (01:02): Thanks for having me. Laura Maylene Walter (01:03): Well, we always start this podcast by asking our guests about their Ohio connection. So can you tell our listeners what you're doing in Ohio? Allegra Hyde (01:12): I arrived in Ohio in the summer of 2019 to start a job at Oberlin College. I started as a visiting professor and was lucky enough to be kept on, and I've really loved immersing myself in the Oberlin community and beyond, Laura Maylene Walter (01:32): And I'm so excited to talk about THE LAST CATSTROPHE, which is fun to say by the way. I'm realizing that now <laugh> as I say it. But I wanted to start the conversation by pulling a line out from your acknowledgement section. You wrote, "Short stories were my first love as a writer, and it was seeing my stories in print for the first time that gave me the wild confidence to pursue the writing life." So can you take us back to the beginning and share how short fiction served as a foundation for you as a writer? Allegra Hyde (02:00): I think like a lot of young writers, I cut my teeth by writing short stories. That's usually what you end up writing if you're taking creative writing classes. So that's what I started out with and I really loved that form because it allows you to experiment with many different voices and many different styles and perspectives. And as a, a young writer, as a student, I was doing this experimenting, trying different things and was fortunate enough to have mentors and teachers who encouraged me to submit my work to literary journals, which just seemed like such a, such an incredible long shot. But I had the support. So I, uh, I gave it a go and after some persistence, I was able to land my, my first story in print at the, the Bellevue Literary Review. Laura Maylene Walter (02:57): That's great publication. Allegra Hyde (02:58): Yeah, it was so exciting to see my work physicalized in a journal. To know that someone cared enough about it, to edit it and put it in there, was incredibly special. And it, like I said in the acknowledgements, it gave me that confidence to keep going. So I'm, I'm really grateful to literary journals for supporting emerging writers and for giving homes to writers in general to try things out and to read each other's work. It's such a precious thing that we have. Laura Maylene Walter (03:30): Yeah, absolutely. It's so important for writers and sometimes when I really think about literary journals and what they do and how they manage to exist, even in our capitalist culture, it almost seems magical. Well, speaking of maybe a bit of magic, I would love to talk about THE LAST CATASTROPHE. And I thought I would try to give our listeners a sense of the book because I'm fresh off reading these stories and it's a really speculative and imaginative and creative collection, creative use of form, creative use of point of view. We've got a woman who grows a unicorn horn, at least that's how I see it. Ghost glaciers, intergalactic finishing schools, treatment centers for digital disorders, artists who are kept in cages like zoo animals, foster homes for husbands. That was one of my personal favorites <laugh>. An algorithm that delivers products and anticipation of your every future need or desire. And compounds where the privileged escape the ravages of climate change. And that's just to name a few stories. So it's really a book about the environment and capitalism and the future of a changing world and so much more. And it was just wild and fun and also really terrifying. So with that really broad overview, I'm wondering if there's maybe one story you'd like to pull out of the collection, one that you think represents the book and tell our listeners about it. Allegra Hyde (04:55): Well, I think maybe I'll talk about the second story in the collection, which may in fact be the very shortest. I think it's just two or so pages, and it's called "Disruptions." And it's a story that to me is a touchstone for this idea of global weirding, which in my mind is the kind of thematic, an important thematic element that runs throughout the book. And in that story, we start with an epigraph that includes a number of real headlines from National Geographic describing weird things that animals are doing. So some examples of these headlines would be, "Tropical Fish cause trouble as climate change drives them toward the poles." "Biggest walrus gathering recorded as sea ice shrinks." "Tiny rabbit like animals eating paper to survive global warming." And these headlines are all examples of how as our climate changes, animal species and natural forces are all kind of thrown out of whack. Allegra Hyde (06:00): And I really like the term global weirding rather than global warming, because A, it's less politicized and B, I think it's more accurate. Our changing climate isn't just about rising temperatures, it's about how all the systems of the environment as well as human systems are just getting disrupted. You know, I've been reading about these wild floods in Southern California, for instance, that just happened. They're part of a, a new normal in which everything is not normal. This story takes that idea and then applies it to human beings. And in this short flash fiction piece, we see examples of daughters and sons and mothers and fathers all acting strangely. And to me that captures the idea of global weirding on a a metaphorical level. And throughout the book, throughout the other stories, I hope that traces of this idea of weirding is expressed through other avenues, oftentimes allegorical, metaphorical, but all with the same aim. Laura Maylene Walter (07:06): Yeah, I think that's a good story to pull out as an example. And you mentioned the epigraph for that story and there were two other stories as well in the book with epigraphs that really struck me. And I'd love to talk a bit about your process for generating a premise for a story in this book. For example, the two stories I'm referencing, the first is "The Eaters," and it opens with a Charles Dickens quote from A TALE OF TWO CITIES about letting the, "Famished eat grass." And the story, of course, is about people who have been genetically modified to eat grass. I hope I'm not giving away too much by saying that. And then the other story that I'm thinking of is Democracy in America, which is also the title of Alexis de Tocqueville, the text that he wrote back in, I believe the 19th century when he came to America and was taking an anthropological look at democracy in this country. And so that seems to be a futuristic fictionalized version of him and his journey. And just by reading each of those epigraphs, I could see how those short excerpts, if you use them as a writing exercise or something, it could open a whole new world in fiction. So I'm wondering if you could talk about that a bit, about each of these stories. They usually have such a fantastical premise. So how did these come together for you? Allegra Hyde (08:21): I am a bit of a information sponge, so I'm always collecting theories and ideas, whether it's something as rigorous as the history of Alexis de Tocqueville's exploration through America or memes on the internet. As a fiction writer, I try to gather all these bits of the human experience and synthesize them into stories, into premises and explore via story to hopefully create new meaning, better understand certain ideas. So with Democracy in America, I'm taking this historical legacy and reimagining it in a near future context and also querying that story and thinking about it kind of from another angle or with "The Eaters" using that element or that quote from Charles Dickens was a way to tie a speculative future premise to ongoing cycles of oppression and exploitation that have existed throughout human history. And that I hope offer a kind of broader ambient context in some ways fanciful and silly, uh, at times ideas that I'm playing with in the stories such as vegan zombies. Laura Maylene Walter (09:43): So many of these stories do deal with global weirding, as you say. And I also read your novel ELEUTHERIA, which is also climate fiction or cli-fi. So I'm curious about how these two books exist alongside each other. They're being published fairly quickly, but of course we know a writer's life, the books come together more gradually over time. Can you talk about that a bit, about how this story collection took form over the years and also more broadly about what it is to be a writer and have certain themes, certain topics that you continue grappling with in different forms? Allegra Hyde (10:18): I am a big believer that as writers we have certain things that obsess us and that we oftentimes keep returning to those themes and topics and questions over and over again, trying to dig deeper, trying to further unpack them, trying to truly understand them. And that can drive a whole body of work. And for me, I've been always really interested in idealism and utopian communities and the notion of community and the collective in general, always interested in patterns that run through history, especially in the Americas. And so both my novel and this new story collection explore those ideas. I think of the two books as being in conversation, as being cousins in a sense. Working on the novel was a project that took about five years. I worked on it from roughly 2015 to 2020. And while I was working on that novel, I tried to stay pretty monogamous with that novel and not get distracted by stories because it felt like the novel needed everything I could throw at it. Allegra Hyde (11:31): But once I sold the novel and had some space and time on my hands, I had a lot of kind of pent up story ideas that I wanted to explore. And I think in many ways the stories are a product of maybe some research I did for the novel that didn't fit into the novel I had come across and wanted to explore further. So I wrote over half of the stories in the collection in a pretty big burst, a pretty quick burst from 2020 basically during lockdown in the pandemic, we can use that as a timeframe. And so that was also a moment in which I was thinking about catastrophe. Pretty, pretty intensively like a lot of people, but in that way the two books are related. Laura Maylene Walter (12:20): Yeah. And you mentioned some of that research. Are there other stories you would like to call out some of the research that you did for these stories? Allegra Hyde (12:28): An example of a story would be "The Future Is a Click Away," which is about a super powerful algorithm that can predict what everyone is going to need and preemptively sends consumers items before they have ever purchased them. And that story is very much born from research into kind of the way current internet systems, social media are harvesting so much of our data and and using that data to figure us out and oftentimes in really eerie ways. And I hoped that that story felt like it was looking just a little bit into the future based off what already exists and what is already oftentimes very uncanny. Laura Maylene Walter (13:17): Oh, absolutely. I was very creeped out by it. It felt like something by 2024 could happen. I don't know if we want to give people an example of some of the things that would come, but you know, tampons right before you get your period, if you have been thinking you might need a new couch, it will send you a couch that's sort of in your price range, but it turns out maybe a little more than your price range. So basically anything. And in that way it also is predicting the future of what's going to happen to you, which is really creepy and fascinating. And I feel like that's the sense reading this book in general gave me that these are things of the future that aren't real right now, but almost all of them feel just right around the corner. Allegra Hyde (13:56): Yeah, the one way I take heart as a, a human being, um, facing down the algorithm in the real world is that because I'm a writer, I'm always researching this, you know, totally oddball thing. So I'll be looking up, you know, boots from 1980 and then like weird medicines or something. And so I hope that I kind of keep the algorithm on its toes, but who knows? Laura Maylene Walter (14:19): It probably knows exactly what you're doing for research or something. Oh boy. Well, speaking of the end of the world, I guess there is a moment in "The Eaters," the novella at the end of the collection, where an aging academic is living in a compound with others of, you know, privileged people kind of sheltered from the ravages, everything that's going on outside and food shortages and things are taking a bad turn. And she's writing a lecture and it's like writing a lecture at the end of the world and she's thinking, this is my last lecture, she's thinking, who will even read this? And trying to push that thought away so she could continue to write it. And of course this struck me as a writer as well. I certainly don't think our current world is as bad as what is happening in this story, but there is this sense often when I talk to writers or artists of feeling sometimes in our worst moments, a sense of hopelessness that we're writing fiction or writing poetry and the world seems to be burning. So what are we doing? And I'm wondering if you could just speak to that a bit, especially since you write climate fiction and talk about that creative impulse and why it matters. Allegra Hyde (15:27): Yeah, that's such a great question. I feel the despair too. I'm not immune to it. And I think in many ways it is important to really acknowledge the scope of disaster and to bear witness to the scope of disaster and recognize what's at stake, what we're losing, and to be okay with grieving. So I try to, to hold that emotion and that feeling. But on the other hand, I try to also take heart in the fact that human beings are so much a product of their own storytelling and their own myth making. And as a writer and as an artist, I have the opportunity like all artists and storytellers to contribute to a larger cultural conversation and to offer up new myths or new takes on ways of seeing ourselves and that that can be part of a larger process of reinventing ourselves as human beings. Allegra Hyde (16:26): And maybe only in for me, you know, a very small way, but it's still something. And in "The Eaters" I tried to kind of balance that professor's voice with other voices and other perspectives and especially the character of Marmalade who is a young woman who's troubled in her own way, but who really believes in the collective and is willing to take risks and to be brave out of love and out of a sense of possibility and a sense of kind of connection to others. And that felt really important to express alongside the, the professor's nihilism. Laura Maylene Walter (17:12): Well, I'd love to hear a bit more about your process. You mentioned that you worked on the novel for five years and then turned to the stories after the novel was done. I think that's very relatable. I often have writing students who ask me, sometimes they ask me, is it okay if they work on stories while they work on a novel? And I'm always saying, do what works for you, right. But I also have that sense where sometimes when I'm in a big project, like a novel, I can't write stories. And in fact, just last weekend I'm in sort of a break of working on a bigger project and I wrote a fresh short story draft, the first one I've written in a long time. And it felt so good. It felt like, oh, I remember why I love this and why like you stories were what brought, brought me to fiction writing. For writers out there listening who might be interested in doing both novels and stories, how are those two processes different for you? How do you even just mentally approach writing something huge like a novel versus writing individual stories? What's that like for you? Allegra Hyde (18:05): When I'm writing a short story, oftentimes I'll sit down and hand write the whole story from start to finish. And it doesn't mean the story's completely whole and perfect, but I can sit down and, and handwrite out those pages and get a sense of the arc, a sense of the maybe key characters and questions that the story is exploring. And I also find stories, at least my stories are so often driven by voice and just kind of listening to a voice and even just trying to transcribe it in a way when it comes to a novel, it's hard to handwrite a whole novel from start to finish in one sitting. So it's a very different process. And as someone who feels maybe more comfortable with short stories, approaching the novel is daunting. And the way I approached my first novel was by trying to write islands of scenes basically, and of ideas and character sketches and building out those islands and shifting them around and connecting them. But it was very messy and very labor intensive and it really required a kind of literary faith in the sense that something could emerge out of this mess of pages sense. So often everything seemed completely chaotic. And I think more than short stories, a novel really requires perseverance and a kind of just belief that something will emerge on the other side if I just keep pushing forward and pushing forward kind of through the dark. Laura Maylene Walter (19:49): Yeah, I love that literary faith that's very appropriate and I'm going to keep all that in mind as I approach revisions on a big project. Cause even, even if you're several drafts in, there's still that sense of diving back into the deep for a novel. You know, am I going to be able to do this and untangle it and all of that. It is such a different process. Yeah. What sounds like you wrote your stories in a fairly short period of time. I found lockdown also kind of a fertile creative time for me, which was really great and lucky because I know it wasn't like that for everyone. But in terms of revision, what does your revision process look like for a story versus that larger process we just mentioned of a novel? Allegra Hyde (20:28): Yeah. When I'm revising a story, like I said, I write it out by hand and then from there I type it up, print out that typed manuscript, scribble on the manuscript, maybe write out lots of sections by hand again. So it's very labor intensive and very physical in a way. And to me that's how I best access the subconscious and maybe find ways for the story to be smarter than I am as a conscious human being by letting kind of words just flow without over editing them. And so I do that back and forth from many drafts I read aloud. And then of course, as with any writing, I share drafts with other readers. And that is really, I think what helps work take the quantum leap. I'm so grateful to the writing partners that I've had who have given me both the sense of accountability to finish drafts and to give me the feedback that makes work better when it comes to a novel. Allegra Hyde (21:32): I ended up doing a lot more outlining than I'd ever done with short stories, and that helped hold the whole manuscript in my mind and work on figuring out how to maintain a narrative engine throughout. So there was a lot of kind of going back and forth between the manuscript and an outline of the manuscript to do that big picture work. And then on a more micro level, I'd tried to again, do the things I just described with the story, but it's much harder, it's also harder to find a reader for a long novel manuscript. So it's, it's definitely different in that way. Laura Maylene Walter (22:10): Well, your first book was also a story collection and that won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award at the University of Iowa, and that was in 2016, I believe. Now your third book is another story collection, but out through vintage with a second collection under your belt, what have some of the main differences been or what have you learned from the process of publishing one collection and now moving on to your next? Allegra Hyde (22:35): I think with the first collection, a lot of those stories came out of my MFA and they were stories that I was using to cut my teeth on different points of view and perspectives. And so the stores were testing grounds in that way. And I think for better or worse, some of the stories in that collection were more, more sketches than anything. And I'm, I'm still proud of them, but that's what they were. I hope with this second collection, the stories are more full, more substantive and stand on their own. And I also hope that there's a greater sense of cohesion with the stories. I think with that first collection, it did have a central interest in this idea of utopia, of paradise lost and found. But with this new collection, I hope that there's a even greater cohesion on the level of theme as well as aesthetically. For instance, there's a series of stories that use first person plural, and I hoped that those kind of were a another way of linking pieces together throughout the piece. Laura Maylene Walter (23:47): Yeah, I'm glad you mentioned that, that was one of my questions. I always love a good first person plural story. Well, if we can just really briefly dive into the business side a bit, because I know writers always love to hear about this. So you and I happen to have the same agent, Erin Harris at Folio. Hi, Erin! Who is amazing. Now it is just a coincidence we have the same agent. We didn't know each other through her or through anything else really, but can you talk a bit about how you ended up as Erin's client and more broadly, especially for writers working on story collections, maybe with or without a novel, how an agent can play a role in a story collection? Because not every writer who writes stories does have an agent. So what are your thoughts on that? Allegra Hyde (24:32): The good news for writers of short stories and story collections is that you do not need an agent to sell the book and to sell a book that really makes its way into the world. My first book OF THIS NEW WORLD, I submitted to University of Iowa Press without an agent and was able to then publish it. And I know that there's a number of other contests of that nature. There's also presses that do not require agents to receive work. So I think that that's really good news and I think that university presses, small presses, Indie presses are where a lot of the most exciting and innovative writing is happening and stories are fertile ground for innovation. So I think that that's a great path to take. I'm also really grateful to get to work with an agent like Erin. We connected after my first book came out, and I felt like she really understood what I was trying to do and saw what was happening in my work and had good feedback. And so I'm, I'm really grateful to be able to be in conversation with her as I send work out and to know that she's advocating for me and kind of generally supporting the kind of work that I care about. Laura Maylene Walter (25:56): Yeah, definitely. Is there anything else, any other advice you could share with writers who are perhaps working on their first story collection? You mentioned the collection contest, which is a really great way for writers of short stories to get their work out there, but what other suggestions do you have for writers working on collections? Allegra Hyde (26:15): I think this is a great opportunity to bring our conversation full circle back to this idea of publishing in literary journals because agents, if you're looking to get an agent, do read literary journals as a way to find new clients, new talent. And so publishing, um, your work in literary journals is a way to get your name out there and to not only connect with peers and enthusiastic readers, but to potentially connect with an agent who likes what you're trying to do on the page. And so I think that's, that's an exciting hot tip that I can offer. Laura Maylene Walter (26:54): Yeah, I agree with that. That's been on my mind lately. I wrote an article for poets and writers recently about literary magazines and how important they are in a writer's career, and it made me reflect on when I was publishing in journals more frequently, publishing short fiction. I've had multiple agents reach out to me and they didn't all work out, but it was still, you're entering this professional discussion or conversation with other writers, with readers, but also, you know, you don't go into it with this in mind, but maybe professionals in the industry such as agents or editors. And so it's a way of, yeah, getting your work out there and just becoming a part of that conversation. So I think that's a really smart tip. So we mentioned your novel ELEUTHERIA, which came out just last year, received a lot of acclaim, a lot of great attention. And part of that attention if I can ask is about your appearance on Late Night with Seth Myers, which is delightful and I will link to that. But would you be willing to talk about that a bit? What was it like appearing on the show and, you know, just fill in all the writers who dream of their debut novels and one day being on a late night show? Tell us all about that. Allegra Hyde (28:01): It was absolutely surreal. I still can't believe that it happened. If there wasn't video evidence on YouTube , I'd be like, that was a weird dream. But, you know, the literary gods were looking out for me. And I think more than anything that experience taught me or reminded me that you never know what will happen or transpire when you put your work out there. I never would've anticipated that that kind of exposure and opportunity would've come my way, but it did. So I try to kind of stay open to that possibility or I'm trying. Moving ahead. What was it like being on the show? It was a total dream. I met Martha Stewart in the green room. She surveyed the free cookies that we were given and immediately noted that they had too much butter. Just from a visual scan. Laura Maylene Walter (28:55): That's high level. Wow. Allegra Hyde (28:56): The actual filming, it felt very intense. Those lights truly are really bright, those TV lights and I think I kind of blacked out, but, Laura Maylene Walter (29:05): Oh yeah, that would be a blackout situation. A hundred percent. Allegra Hyde (29:08): But I'm told that it went okay. Laura Maylene Walter (29:12): You did great <laugh>. No, you did great. How exciting to see him hold up your book on television. That must be so surreal and fantastic. Any tips for writers who get the phone call that they're going on a show like that? Allegra Hyde (29:23): Well, this is a funny story, but, I actually was scheduled to go on the show earlier in the spring, but I got Covid. So my first appearance was canceled. And so one tip would be if you get the call, I don't know, maybe become a hermit and or practice really safe Covid protocol so that you make sure that you get on there. Laura Maylene Walter (29:48): Oh, that must have been so stressful. I'm so glad it worked out in the end. And you got on Allegra Hyde (29:53): Yeah, it was, it was a really dark time when I wasn't sure if it was going to get rescheduled and I was just sick with Covid. Laura Maylene Walter (30:01): Well, glad it worked out and that you have this new book out, which is so exciting. Since this book is, and your work in general focuses a lot on the environment, changes to the planet, you know, imagining what that would look like. I was wondering, would you like to share with us a natural place in the world that is meaningful to you? Allegra Hyde (30:21): Oh, I'd love to and I would love to highlight a Ohio spot. Laura Maylene Walter (30:26): Ooh, great. Allegra Hyde (30:27): Which is the arboretum in Oberlin, which is a pretty small chunk of land, but it is really varied with meadow and forest and river and wetland. And whenever I've gone through tough times, taking a walk around that area and listening to birds and seeing deer has always helped me stay grounded. And I'm just, I'm really grateful for spaces like that. Laura Maylene Walter (30:55): For my last question, I thought I would turn to your dedication in the last catastrophe, which is simply "For who we'll be." Can you talk about that a bit and how you hope your stories interact or speak to the different possibilities of our futures and who we could or could not be? Allegra Hyde (31:19): Sure. This is a great question and thank you for noticing my dedication. I want to offer up the possibility of reinvention after catastrophe that isn't necessarily terrible. Maybe going back to this idea of global weirding and climate change, which are really scary and which suggests really challenging futures, futures with limited resources, with weather disasters, with social structures really kind of shaken up. That's all really scary and it seems really bad potentially. But I think whenever kind of big seismic changes happen, there's also the possibility of reinvention. Maybe we think about structuring our communities differently in a better way that serves more people, that's more equal. Maybe we think about different political systems that are truly trying to embody democracy. Maybe the future is something that doesn't have to be just apocalyptic, but that can be an opportunity for rethinking what we value and what is really important to us. So I hope that this book offers some ways of thinking in that direction. Laura Maylene Walter (32:36): It definitely does. And I think that's a perfect note to, to end on. So Allegra, thank you so much for joining us and for taking the time. And congratulations on the publication of THE LAST CATASTROPHE, it's a delight. Allegra Hyde (32:47): Thanks so much. Laura Maylene Walter (32:50): Page Count is presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, rate, and leave a review for Page Count wherever you get your podcast. 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